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Protesters launch sit-in on Texas Capitol grounds over 'sanctuary' bill

By Julián Aguilar

About 50 protesters took over the lobby of the State Insurance Building on the grounds of the Texas Capitol on Monday to protest Senate Bill 4, a measure that would outlaw “sanctuary” jurisdictions in Texas and passed out of the Texas House last week.

The insurance building houses several of Gov. Greg Abbott’s administrative offices, including the human resources, homeland security grants and criminal justice divisions. Abbott has urged lawmakers to pass a bill this session that bans "sanctuary cities" — places where local officials do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The morning began with a modest gathering at the south entrance of the Capitol. Demonstrators made clear their intent to keep fighting the bill, even if it meant possible civil disobedience. Then the protesters told reporters to stay tuned for something more direct and began the march to the east side of the Capitol grounds.

The bill would make department heads like sheriffs, constables, police chiefs and local leaders subject to a Class A misdemeanor if they don’t cooperate with federal authorities and honor requests from immigration agents to hold noncitizen inmates subject to deportation. It also provides civil penalties for entities in violation of the provision that begin at $1,000 for a first offense and climb to as high as $25,500 for each subsequent infraction.

Though protesters were adamantly opposed to the bill since the start, the issue took on a new dimension last week after the Texas House amended the bill and added a more controversial measure. The amendment allows police officers to question a person’s immigration status during a detainment, as opposed to being limited to those under lawful arrest. Democrats and immigrant rights groups argue this makes the bill "show-me-your-papers"-type legislation, where police will be able to inquire into status during the most routine exchanges, including traffic stops.

“What we're hopeful for is that communities around Texas are not just going to just lay down and accept this,” said Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based immigrant rights groups and private prison watchdog.

Libal said the end goal of the protests is that Abbott vetoes the bill, a highly unlikely outcome since the governor declared the issue an “emergency” item shortly after the current legislative session began.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Shortly after arriving in the lobby, protesters sat down in front of the building’s east entrance, barring employees from entering through that part of the building. Then half of that group moved to the west entrance and blocked that door. Attendees chanted “this entrance is closed” as employees tried to enter the ground floor.

When asked if the protesters could be arrested, a DPS officer on the scene referred all questions to the agency’s public information office, where a spokesperson said the agency is "continuing to monitor the situation."

Demonstrator Norma Herrera, a 29-year-old former staffer for the state’s Legislative Budget Board, said on Monday that every day she worked for the state “now felt like a lie.”

“It’s our job to tell them they’re fired and they can go to hell,” she told the group.

As Monday wears on, Herrera, a former undocumented immigrant who currently holds legal residency status, said she knows she could eventually be arrested.

“It’s a possibility but if that’s the case, I know that I’m doing it because it’s my moral obligation to resist unjust laws,” she said.

It's unclear what the final version of the bill will look like. After the House's action last week, the bill now heads back to the Senate, where lawmakers there can accept the changes and send it along to the governor's desk or reject the House version and call for a conference committee in which members from both chambers will meet to iron out the differences.

As of 1 p.m., the protesters were still in the lobby. One gave a brief update to the crowd.

“We’re not leaving,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. 

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