More than 20 protesters, including immigrants, students, a pair of elected officials and a Christian pastor, were arrested Monday evening after staging an all-day sit-in demonstration in the lobby of a state office building to call on Gov. Greg Abbott to veto the bill banning so-called sanctuary cities.
It’s an unlikely proposition, given that Abbott has listed signing Senate Bill 4, which would impose stiff penalties on cities and counties that decline in some way to assist federal immigration enforcement, as one of his top priorities for lawmakers this year. But the demonstrators said they wanted to send the message that the fight over the bill, which is nearing the legislative finish line after being approved by the House last week, is far from over.
“I accept that sitting in means risking arrest, but what I’m not willing to accept is the harm that Gov. Abbott and others want to inflict on immigrant communities,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar, one of the demonstrators at the State Insurance Building just southeast of the Capitol, said before his arrest.
The building houses one of the governor’s staff offices, but Abbott was not in the building during the demonstration. His office did not respond to a request for comment about the protest, which was organized by Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that opposes private prisons and advocates for immigrants.
Throughout the day, the protesters turned away state workers and Department of Public Safety troopers trying to enter the building, linking arms to block the doors and chanting, “This entrance is closed.” But it’s likely that they did little to disrupt state business. Workers were going in and out of another entrance to the building without impediment.
They chanted “SB 4 is hate”; toted signs such as one reading, “I am a sanctuary citizen”; ate pizza supplied by the Texas Democratic Party; and enjoyed live music, including a song by Austin artist Gina Chavez called “She Persisted” that was inspired by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
When the building closed at 5 p.m., state troopers told the protesters that they would receive citations if they did not leave. While most of the crowd dispersed, about two dozen remained. More than 20 of the participants were charged with class B misdemeanor trespassing and were released shortly thereafter, Casar said.
The Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Austin, who was one of the first to be arrested, said earlier in the day that he had prepared for the moment by not bringing anything with him except an ID.
“This is not about the law,” he said of SB 4. “This is about sending terror across the community.”
Julie Ann Nitsch, an Austin Community College trustee, missed a meeting of the ACC board to participate in the protest because, she said, the bill will hurt students.
“Some immigrants won’t come to school because they are afraid,” she said.
The House approved SB 4, authored by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and carried in the House by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, after an emotional 16-hour debate in which outnumbered Democrats made numerous attempts to derail the bill, only to see it altered in line with conservatives’ wishes after the House adopted amendments proposed by tea party-backed Republicans.
A select committee of House and Senate members will now negotiate differences between the two chambers’ versions before the Legislature sends it to Abbott’s desk.
Among other things, the bill bans police departments from keeping their officers from inquiring about the immigration status of anyone who is “detained,” a broad category that includes people in routine traffic stops.
Supporters of the bill have said it is necessary to keep communities secure and slow the flow of illegal immigration. Critics, including Austin’s interim police chief, have said the measure will do the opposite, damaging his officers’ relationship with vulnerable populations in Austin, resulting in a less safe community.
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