There is nothing in El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes’ demeanor that suggests rabble rousing to make his point about some of the most serious human issues of the borderlands — immigration reform, civil rights abuses, and opposition to SB4, the inhumane, life-altering “show me your papers” legislation signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbot on May 7.
And yet it was Reyes as lead plaintiff who filed suit on behalf of the small incorporated city of El Cenizo — population 3,300 — for an injunction to stop SB4 from going into effect September 1. Among the Texas cities and counties to join the suit are El Paso County, Maverick County, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, Laredo, and the City of La Joya.
In a town in which no incumbent mayor had ever been re-elected, Reyes is 13 years into seven continuous two-year terms. He was 21 when he first took the oath of office in 2004.
Reyes is quick to point out that there is no such thing as a sanctuary city as defined by state and federal government. The nebulous designation to which lawmakers refer is a city that limits its cooperation with the national government effort to enforce immigration law. Cities who so do are subject to fines and jail time for their elected and law enforcement officials.
1999: GENTE ALIADA
This is not El Cenizo’s first stand to uphold the civil rights of its populace against government overreaching.
Mayor Reyes recalled that when El Cenizo residents came together in 1999 as Gente Aliada, they worked proactively to establish two controversial ordinances — a predominant language ordinance and a safe haven ordinance. The first ordinance provided that City Council meetings and public communications be conducted in Spanish so that the people of El Cenizo could understand and participate in their own governance.
The second, a safe haven ordinance, established a human rights commission to document and investigate the human and civil rights abuses of law enforcement, notably the U.S Border Patrol (USBP). The writers of that ordinance established precedence for a municipality banning law enforcement from asking about immigration status.
“The ordinances were written in English, but City business is conducted in Spanish,” Reyes said, noting that news of the two ordinances went global and invited a backlash of racist commentary that was at times vitriolic and hateful and at other times derisive. “There were KKK threats. National radio shows made fun of the El Cenizo City Council. We heard, ‘Take your town back to Mexico. This is America.’ We were called ‘wetbacks,’” Reyes recalled.
“Back then if you were one of the kids in El Cenizo who got to school with muddy shoes because you had walked through the mud of our unpaved streets to get to the school bus, you would remember being called mojados even by our Hispanic classmates in South Laredo,” Reyes said.
“You would also remember that Border Patrol agents boarded the school bus to ask middle and high school students for their papers,” he continued, “and that USBP had ramped up its checkpoints on Espejo Molina Road.” Espejo Molina Road is the artery that runs off Hwy. 83 South to the gateways of Río Bravo and then El Cenizo.
According to Mayor Reyes, back in 1999 attorney Israel Reyna of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA), and now-Laredo City Council member Nelly Vielma, a St. Mary’s University School of Law student at the time, were instrumental in helping Gente Aliada shape the ordinances that cast light on how a small Texas border town populated almost entirely by immigrants was dealing with the giant fissures in the nation’s failing immigration policy.
“The people of El Cenizo never sought to make pronouncements that would go global,” said TRLA’s Reyna. “These were authentic democratic moves by the people. The language ordinance was never intended to be an anti-English enactment. It was written and passed to give the people of El Cenizo the opportunity to participate in their own governance,” he continued, noting the leadership of then-Mayor Rafael Rodriguez.
Reyna said that the El Cenizo human rights commission deputized official commissioners and authorized them to investigate human rights abuses by law enforcement. “They deputized the Saint Mary’s law school students to take complaints, to hold hearings, and make recommendations. Their findings were brought to the attention of El Cenizo officials and other activist organizations, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF),” he elaborated, noting that Nina Perales, now director of MALDEF, was among those who worked with Gente Aliada at the time.
Among the complaints recorded in sworn statements to the commission were those against the Border Patrol for its over-zealousness and abuse of power at the checkpoint inspections, including the boarding of UISD buses to ask school children their legal status. “Looking back,” Reyes said, “It is incomprehensible that the UISD trustees allowed this at the time.” Another recorded statement, Reyes recalled, was from an El Cenizo mechanic known by Border Patrol agents to be undocumented. “He provided free labor with a government boot at his throat,” Reyes said.
According to Reyes, today the residents of El Cenizo enjoy a good working relationship with Border Patrol agents. “Their presence is welcome along the border, though not necessarily on our streets. Our community support is vital to their work.”
Mayor Reyes observed, “Texas wasn’t prepared to see a small town like El Cenizo step up to start the movement against SB4.”
Attorney Reyna said El Cenizo’s opposition to SB4 sets precedence now as it did in 1999 by going first out on the edge of principled causes. “The people of El Cenizo have found support from organizations like MALDEF, the Amerian Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), and us at TRLA,” he noted. “Initiating the suit encouraged larger cities to join,” he said, adding that The ACLU revisited El Cenizo’s original safe haven ordinance to cure a provision that made sure there was no conflict with federal immigration law.
Reyna lauded Reyes’ willingness to call racism by its rightful name and to take a position on SB4. “He has taken charge and defended or decried policies that were controversial then and now. He’s taken on a cause that others would have backed away from. There is valor in that, and it must be recognized,” Reyna said.
The Mayor speaks passionately of his neighbors and friends. “We will not turn our backs on them or watch households of mixed legal status be torn apart. These were our classmates. These are people we go to church with, share meals with, go to the same Little League games with. They own homes and businesses here, and they pay taxes. These are good people. You have no idea the despair of a grandmother trying to secure power of attorney to get her grandchildren back after her daughter’s deportation. Or what those children think who no longer have their mother with them,” he said.
“Immigration policy is a very complex issue, not just on this border and not just with immigrants from Mexico. It is a policy in crisis, no matter the country of origin. On this border, undocumented crossings from Mexico are down. There are many here who have expired visas, many who have lived here, have had American-born children, and have made their lives here,” the Mayor said.
“The Democrats had a chance to address the failures of federal immigration policy. It was a campaign issue in 2008, and less so in the last election. We continue to live in the aftermath of that failure, in the absence of a humane and just law, and with the possibility that Draconian anti-immigrant measures will continue to tear mothers from their children,” he said.
Reyes believes that the State knows SB4 is a flawed piece of legislation, that it is vague, and that if enacted it violates the First, Fourth, and 14th amendments to the Constitution. The suit’s claims, among others:
- the bill violates the First Amendment rights of elected and appointed officials by threatening punishment should they endorse any policy that limits local enforcement of immigration law;
- the bill violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizure;
- the bill violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Reyes said that those who favor SB4 have been unable to come up with evidence that controverts the lawsuit. “The blowback from the defeat of SB6, the bathroom bill, opened the door for our suit. There was testimony for how the legislative calendar committee by-passed the usual 30-60 day wait and had SB4 on the calendar within 24 hours so that the Governor could declare it an emergency item,” he continued.
He said that SB4 reflects the racism of the national divide and hate movement, and that at the State Capitol, xenophobia has trumped reason. “The federal government and its broken immigration system are largely to blame for the situation we face today,” Reyes said, adding, “Like the proposed border wall, SB4 will solve nothing. At their essence, they are symbols of hate and racism,”
Earlier this month U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks dismissed the State’s pre-emptive lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over SB4 and threw out the state’s request to have the law declared constitutional.
Along with other plaintiffs in the suit and their lawyers, Reyes anticipates a ruling from U.S. District Judge Orlando García before SB4’s effective date of September 1. Reyes had just spoken by phone with civil rights attorney Luis Roberto Vera Jr., the lead attorney for LULAC who represents El Cenizo.
“He told me we are probably just a few days out from the ruling and to get ready to face the media. He warned me there could be parts of the bill that could go into effect,” Reyes said.
Asked what would be lost in non-compliance with SB4, Reyes answered, “With our scarce resources and the bill’s fines of $25,000 a day, it would take about 10 days to deplete our annual budget. Our City Council made this decision. In the end, however, Council could undo its decision, but I personally, I will live up to the consequences of my stance. It is possible that I can be removed from office. I’ve been called many things, but quitter is not one of them.”
He said that people who have never supported him have let him know they are proud of El Cenizo’s position on SB4, and proud of him. “There was talk,” he said, “should the day arrive that I was to be arrested, the people of El Cenizo would form a shield around me to prevent me from being taken into custody, that they were prepared to defend me,” he said.
Despite the political maelstrom surrounding SB4, Reyes remains focused on family, service to his community, and finishing a Masters in public administration at TAMIU.
He is the first of the five sons of Magdalena Gonzalez, who moved her family to El Cenizo in 1992. “She is my inspiration. We have always been her first priority, and now she is mine as she struggles with cancer,” he said.“
Locally we don’t experience racism as you might a little further North when it is up close and in your face. When I have taken my mother to her cancer treatments in San Antonio, I’ve noticed the Anglo patients all greet each other in the waiting room. Despite being in the very same fight for their lives as my mother, they do not greet her, perhaps because of the color of her skin. For me that moment always feels tainted with anti-immigrant sentiment,” he noted.
Asked how he handles the current stresses he faces, Reyes answered, “I like to think that I wear the armor of God, which is my faith. I have been blessed with this job as a leader of my community, and I do it with all my faith in Him. He moves us along and forward. I’ve never lost faith. Once you lose that, you lose yourself.”