This week, the small border town of El Cenizo, Texas has been flooded with national attention after it signed onto a federal lawsuit that seeks to prevent the state’s sanctuary cities ban from being enforced. The law says local law enforcement must comply with federal immigration requests to detail immigrants, and local officers must be allowed to ask about a person’s immigration status.
The law says local law enforcement must comply with federal immigration requests to detail immigrants, and local officers must be allowed to ask about a person’s immigration status.
Those requirements are in conflict with the way citizens in this community have lived in harmony for decades with immigrants who entered the country illegally.
El Cenizo is a small border town with no traffic lights and two grocery stores, including Los Campadres Meat Market, where music fills the street outside.
You can literally see the Rio Grande River, the dividing line between Texas and Mexico, from the highway.
There is no question that some of the people living here entered the country without valid documents. But in 1999, El Cenizo passed a ‘safe haven’ ordinance preventing local police and officials from questioning people about their immigration status.
El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes says immigrants living here are part of the community.
“These are people who have their homestead in our community, who pay property taxes,” Reyes says. “Why on earth would we try to hinder upon their rights and their livelihoods just because they don’t have a piece of paper?”
The City’s motto says a lot: “Two cultures, one great city.” U.S. citizens live next door to undocumented residents. And most people here don’t seem to have a problem with that.
Miguel Trinero sits outside the Meat Market he owns, catching up on the news of the day with friends. The news includes headlines about the lawsuit the city filed in opposition to the state’s new sanctuary cities law.
Governor Greg Abbott says he signed the law to keep Texans safe from criminally dangerous immigrants. Trinero says that simply isn’t a problem
“I think the citizens here respect the businesses that are here and they take care of those businesses,”Trinero says. “The people here are very passive and I don’t have much crime in my business.”
Reyes says if Texas’ sanctuary cities law is enforced, people in communities like El Cenizo will be at risk for detention and possible deportation for something as simple as a traffic violation.
Luis Vera is an attorney with the League of United Latin-American Citizens or LULAC, the Latino rights group that filed the lawsuit.
“In 1999, they established a ‘safe harbor’ ordinance,”Vera says. “That is if you need somewhere to go, you can come to our town, we’re not going to turn you into immigration, we’re not going to report you. And now the state of Texas wishes to stomp them into the ground because they know there is no one there to fight for them. Is that creed that you can come here and be safe and be happy.”
Mayor Reyes says he’s been accused of inviting criminal immigrants to his town with the safe harbor law. But he says on a typical day, El Cenizo officers usually hand out just a ticket or two for minor traffic violations. The town, with a population just under 3300, has a police department made up of sworn volunteer officers – not paid ones.
Texas’ sanctuary cities law would allow local police officers to question people about their immigration status during a routine traffic stop, even if no arrest occurs. It also financially punishes cities and counties that do not comply with all federal immigration detainer requests.
Roy Vasquez worries that by being a plaintiff in this high-profile lawsuit El Cenizo residents could become a target
“When you get into a lawsuit, you have to be careful. The tables can be turned the other way around,”Vasquez says. “We have a lot to lose here. You see we have small state funds and grants coming to the city.”
El Cenizo officials hope however their small town’s involvement in the lawsuit will highlight the U.S. Constitution’s protection of individual, local rights. So those with papers- and those without- can continue living side by side.
The law is scheduled to go into effect on September 1 Legal arguments for and against the sanctuary cities law will likely be heard in court this summer.