In a couple short years, Yolanda Garcia will reach a milestone that all parents dread to some degree: teaching her kid to drive.
But for the mother of four, it’s not the driving that causes the most concern for her; it’s a conversation she has to have with her 14-year-old son that would go differently for other families in Texas.
If her son were to get pulled over, Garcia tells him, “They (the police) may ask you to show your proof of citizenship.”
“But why would they ask me that?” Garcia’s son replied.
There were many reasons Garcia decided to get involved in the controversial “sanctuary city” litigation, but the conversation she had with her son was certainly one catalyst for her desire to take on the case.
“That’s a really hard question to answer,” Garcia told The Texas Lawbook. “For me it’s particularly painful… that I have to give my son a different answer than what another parent might be telling his or her children.”
And getting involved paid off for Garcia and an army of lawyers at her firm, Sidley Austin, who have spent many holidays, weekends and nights working on the case.
Late on Aug. 30, a federal judge in San Antonio blocked significant portions of Texas’s new so-called “sanctuary cities ban,” also known as Senate Bill 4, less than 48 hours before the law was slated to go into effect on Sept. 1.
The law has been mired in controversy since the Texas Legislature passed it and Governor Greg Abbott signed it in May. The state law bans municipalities and their police departments from adopting policies that limit their cooperation with immigration enforcement. This means that cities must allow their police officers – even peace officers and police on public college campuses – to ask arrested or detained individuals about their immigration status.
Non-compliance of the sanctuary cities ban could slap criminal offenses or civil penalty fees on the local county officials or police officers in Texas. They also could be removed from office.
Supporters of SB4 say that the new law will bring much-needed immigration reform in Texas and will increase public safety. In a briefing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the state says the national conversation about sanctuary cities began in 2015 after a convicted criminal was released by the San Francisco sheriff’s department and killed a 31-year-old woman.
Critics of SB4, including the City of San Antonio (Sidley’s client), the City of Houston, the City of Dallas, and other major cities in Texas, say SB4 is essentially a “show me your papers” law that will target anybody who looks like an immigrant for even minor traffic stops. They also argue the new law violates constitutional rights and imposes substantial burdens on local entities.
Garcia said the firm got involved a few days after SB4 passed in May. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund needed lawyers after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued it, the City of Austin, Travis County Sherriff Sally Hernandez and other outspoken opponents of SB4 and asked a federal judge to affirm the bill’s constitutionality. Until the bill is declared constitutional, the state said, the defendants will continue to violate the law by refusing to comply to SB4.
MALDEF retained Garcia and her California colleague, Jose Sanchez, as lead defense counsel in that case. Within days, Sidley also became co-counsel with MALDEF in the current case for the City of San Antonio and San Antonio councilman Rey Saldaña.
Garcia said she met Sanchez, a partner in Sidley’s Los Angeles office, a couple years ago at a firm partnership dinner. As they were sitting next to each other, Garcia and Sanchez immediately bonded after learning that both of their fathers were from towns about 20 minutes away from each other in Jalisco, Mexico.
They also learned that they both grew up in predominantly Hispanic communities in the U.S. – Garcia in south Fort Worth, and Sanchez in L.A.
“I think that Jose and I have always had a very strong commitment to the communities which we were born into and have come from,” said Garcia, a partner in Sidley’s Dallas office.
After SB4 passed, “I’ve have had former neighbors, church members… call me because they know I’m a lawyer who comes from their neighborhood and ask, ‘What’s going to happen to my family members? Should I be scared?’” Garcia said.
“When you get a call from the community you come from that feels like it [is] under siege, it’s going to resonate with you,” Garcia said.
Thus, it was a no-brainer for Garcia and Sanchez to try to convince Sidley management to take on both cases pro bono.
Not only did Garcia and Sanchez argue that they had the right expertise to handle the fast-paced, complex sanctuary city litigation, but it was also “a deeply-rooted sense that we have come a long way from the communities in which we were raised,” Garcia said. “This is a chance to make sure we’re using these legal skills for their benefit.
They were also matter-of-fact: technically, this legal issue essentially affects everyone in Texas one way or another, they argued.
“Honestly, it affects everyone because to show your papers requiring citizenship would be applicable to anybody who is stopped in Texas,” Garcia said.
After Sidley’s approval, the firm immediately got to work, bringing in an army of 18 lawyers with varying expertise across the Sidley empire to help with the effort.
The time frame was quick, as the lawyers were facing the highly-attended injunction hearing in U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s court in San Antonio a little over a month away from their initial involvement.
The biggest challenges of the case so far, Garcia said, have been the logistics of coordinating such a massive legal effort with co-counsel at MALDEF, the multiple plaintiff groups and the city attorney offices involved in a seamless manner. The effort produced hundreds of pages of briefings for Judge Garcia to review.
Garcia commended her co-counsel at MALDEF, Nina Perales; Sidley Seattle counsel and “brief writer extraordinaire” Robin Wechkin; Los Angeles appellate partner David R. Carpenter, who she calls a “constitutional expert;” Dallas counsel David Dummer, who served as the case manager; and the mounds of associates and three paralegals involved for their tireless work on the case.
“There have been many [Outlook] invites and many conference calls on weekends, late nights with kids screaming in the background and while driving down highways to make sure each and every part of this was coming together,” Garcia said.
In his Aug. 30 decision, Judge Garcia ruled largely in the plaintiffs’ favor.
“There is overwhelming evidence by local officials, including local law enforcement, that SB4 will erode public trust and make many communities and neighborhoods less safe,” he wrote in the 94-page ruling. “There is also ample evidence that localities will suffer adverse economic consequences which, in turn, harm the State of Texas.
“Indeed, at the end of the day, the Legislature is free to ignore the pleas of city and county officials, along with local police departments, who are in the trenches and neighborhoods enforcing the law on a daily and continuing basis,” he continued. “The depth and reservoir of knowledge and experience possessed by local officials can be ignored. The Court cannot and does not second guess the Legislature. However, the state may not exercise its authority in a manner that violates the United States Constitution.”
Governor Abbott has appealed the order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and filed a motion to stay the order with the Fifth Circuit after Judge Garcia denied the state’s request to do so.
“The district court’s order should be immediately stayed pending appeal, as this injunction has far-reaching public safety consequences,” the state wrote. “SB4 is wholly valid, and the state has every right to prohibit its own localities from having sanctuary city policies. Moreover, the order even threatens existing and legitimate local voluntary cooperation with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration law.”
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin dismissed the state’s other case against MALDEF and other defendants in early August. The state is also appealing that dismissal with the Fifth Circuit.