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Sheriff prepares to enforce 'anti-sanctuary cities' law as county fights law in court

Sheriff prepares to enforce...

EL PASO, Texas - Texas Senate Bill 4 - the so-called "anti-sanctuary cities" law - has led to protests and lawsuits even though Republicans across the state are billing it as a victory for public safety.

"Texans expect us to keep them safe and that is exactly what we are going to do by me signing this law," Gov. Greg Abbot said on May 7, 2017.

Senate Bill 4 prohibits municipalities from stopping peace officers from asking about a person's immigration status -- as long as that individual is lawfully detained.

Two weeks after Abbott put pen to paper, the County of El Paso announced it would sue the state over the controversial law. 

"Our officers are not border patrol agents. They're not trained in federal immigration law, and if we get sued and we lose it's the tax payer that has to pay for that settlement or for that loss in court," county judge Veronica Escobar said.

Escobar is not alone in her criticism of the law. El Paso County sheriff Richard Wiles has testified against the law in Austin.

"I think it's a terrible law," Wiles said. "It's unnecessary, and it's just a waste of everybody's time."

Wiles said the law could discourage members of the undocumented community from reporting crimes.  "It breaks down the trust and respect that citizens have for county law enforcement," Wiles said.

There's also a part of the law makes local officials comply with requests - called detainers - by federal agencies to hold undocumented immigrants.

On May 31, the state filed a lawsuit against many of the parties suing it over the constitutionality of the law. That lawsuit was later amended to add Wiles to the suit.

It states: 

"El Paso and its Sheriff, Richard Wiles, maintain policies and practices that refuse to comply with federal immigration officials and will continue those policies and practices under SB 4."

"That's absolutely not true," Wiles said. "We've honored detainers since I've been here in '09, and we've honored detainers before that. We cooperate because we know by working together that El Paso is safe."

The county believes it's in a unique position when it comes to SB4 because of a 2006 federal settlement agreement.

It was the result of a lawsuit. Defendant Carl Starr said a bus he was on was stopped by sheriff's deputies for an immigration check.

"I was kind of upset in the sense that I knew they shouldn't be doing that," Starr told ABC-7 over the phone.

The county eventually reached an agreement with Starr, and created this policy:

"Stationary vehicle checks to determine the citizenship, residency or immigration status of any person are prohibited."

The county argues SB4 will put them in direct violation of this federal court agreement. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick doesn't think it's that complicated.

In a letter he wrote during the legislative session he said:

"The document was a settlement agreement between the parties, not a judgment ordered by a court. parties cannot agree between themselves to trump state law..."

The City of El Paso is also taking on the state, even though officials say El Paso is not a sanctuary city. City officials said SB4 puts the responsibilities and duties of federal law enforcement agencies on the back of local law enforcement.

El Paso, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston are all suing over the law. The only major city in Texas not suing is Fort Worth.

The state got a big boost when the Trump Administration weighed in on the issue. 

"The Department of Justice fully supports Texas's effort and is participating in this lawsuit because of the strong federal interest in facilitating the state and local cooperation that is critical in enforcing our nation's immigration laws," attorney general Jeff Sessions said.

The law said any official who refuses to comply with SB4 could be removed from office. Wiles said he will abide by the law, but he will not provide training for his deputies.

"We will make sure that our policies don't contain anything that would restrict the officers from doing what the law says they can do," Wiles said. "Of course my preference would be that my officers not engage in immigration enforcement, and providing training I think might empower them to do that, so they're on their own if they chose to do it."


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