FW City Council takes no action on ‘sanctuary cities’ lawsuit

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Barely a month ahead of Senate Bill 4 becoming law in Texas, the spotlight turned on Fort Worth as city leaders grappled with its implications and hundreds of people marched through downtown Aug. 1 to protest the legislation that would ban sanctuary cities. Council members heard pros and cons of joining a lawsuit challenging the law but they took no action at their regular meeting, though they appeared to be split 5-4 against joining other large cities in the lawsuit.

While SB4 gives law enforcement officers authority to question someone’s legal status during encounters, including traffic stops, some business and civic leaders warned of the law’s expected economic impact.

“As we work toward building a vibrant economic environment for Fort Worth, we feel this latest legislation will be detrimental to our state, regional and local economies,” the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said in a statement. “Early statistics indicate potential harmful effects on tourism, workforce development and overall business activity.”

State Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, also predicted that the law would compound work shortages in several industries, particularly the beleaguered construction industry that is already struggling to fill demand for affordable housing.

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“The construction workforce is already having trouble finding skilled workers because a lot of people don’t want to work in 107-degree heat in the summer,” said Romero, a Fort Worth native who owns a pool company business. “Immigrants who are willing to do this type of work will begin moving to other states that are more welcoming of immigrants.

“What does that mean to Texas? Prices will keep going up and homes will become even more unaffordable.”

Other industries that the law’s opponents say would be affected by a loss of immigrant workers include restaurants, landscape firms, roofing companies and grocery stores.

Fort Worth is the largest Texas city to balk at joining a lawsuit challenging SB4, which the Legislature passed in its regular session and the governor signed. The cities of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso are already parties to the suit.

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On Aug. 1 protesters packed Fort Worth City Hall to express frustration with the law. Many also pleaded with City Council members to join the lawsuit. The council heard presentations in its work session from a city attorney and top police official about the law, but they did not schedule a vote on whether to join the lawsuit. The council is split 5-4 with Mayor Betsy Price siding with those who oppose joining the lawsuit, citing the cost and the lack of necessity to take part.

“Whether Fort Worth joins this lawsuit won’t change what the lawsuit outcome will be at all,” Price said. “What also won’t change is our police department’s response to our citizens. This is a community and a police department that cares about its citizens.”

Also opposed were council members Brian Byrd, Cary Moon, Jungus Jordan and Dennis Shingleton.

Council members who wanted the city to join the lawsuit were Carlos E. Flores, Gyna Bivens, Kelly Allen Gray and Ann Zadeh. The supporters cited offers of pro bono legal assistance to join the suit, worries about discrimination, law enforcement overreach and fear among immigrants of reporting crime as well as a rise in crime targeting Hispanics.

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In a presentation to the council, Assistant Police Chief Ed Kraus said, “There is a perception that Senate Bill 4 will strain the relationship between local law enforcement and the diverse communities we serve.”

Further, he said, the measure “may lead to fear and distrust of police and less cooperation from some segments of our community, which could lead to not reporting crime, increased crime against immigrants, creation of a class of silent victims and less community assistance in solving and/or preventing crime.”

The city’s current policy prohibits Fort Worth police officers from contacting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding immigration enforcement. Most interaction between Fort Worth officials and ICE occurs in jails and involves individuals who have been arrested on suspicion of criminal activity, Kraus said. To comply with SB4, the Police Department will have to revise its operating guidelines to lift the prohibition against police officers contacting ICE, Kraus said.

Officers may inquire about someone’s immigration status when he or she is detained, as well as arrested, and cannot provide proof of residency, Kraus said.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB4 in May to require Texas cities and law enforcement officials to comply with federal immigration laws. The measure establishes penalties up to $25,500 per day for entities that do not enforce the law. Police chiefs, county sheriffs and constables could face charges and removal from office for failing to comply with federal immigration requests to detain arrestees.

Abbott called the legislation one of his top priorities.

A group of business, local government and higher education representatives said that Texas stands to lose about $223 million in state and local taxes and more than $5 billion in GDP under SB4, the Texas Tribune reported.

“The Texas Miracle will take a big hit,” Romero said.

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