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Activist groups ask Denton City Council to join SB 4 lawsuit

Dozens of activists wearing red shirts gathered outside Denton City Hall on Tuesday to rally against Senate Bill 4 and, later, to ask City Council members to join a lawsuit against the legislation.

The bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law in May, gives local police officers the authority to question a person's immigration status. It also penalizes local officials who push for so-called "sanctuary cities" — a political term to describe cities and counties that don't comply with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.

Critics have said the new law allows officers to detain and question people on the street solely based on their race. But Denton city and county police officials have said at multiple community meetings that the new measures won't change the way they conduct their day-to-day duties.

The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of Carnalismo Brown Berets organized the rally, which included representatives from Indivisible Denton, North Texas Dream Team, the AFL-CIO and the Society of Native Nations. About 40 people chanted in the City Hall courtyard — "ICE out of Denton, hate out of Texas" — as council members deliberated during their regularly scheduled work session. Speakers used a bullhorn to address the crowd.

Later, during the evening council meeting, three activists asked the council to consider joining the cities of San Antonio, Austin, Houston and El Cenizo in a lawsuit against the bill, which goes into effect Sept. 1. Maverick and El Paso counties have also joined the suit.

"If you are in favor of this law, we as people united — just as you see us here today — will seek a way to put the right people in office that will defend us. ... Please join us," said Debra Mendoza, leader of the D-FW Brown Berets, a Latino activist group, as she directly addressed the council.

Each time a protester took the podium to speak, more than 30 people in the audience stood in solidarity. One of those speakers, UNT student Cristal Benitez Lopez, said the law will make Denton an "unsafe place to be for immigrant families."

Another speaker echoed those sentiments, calling the law racist and saying it "fuels hate."

Denton City Council members did not immediately say whether they would move to join the lawsuit.

Mendoza said the rally was first such event the local chapter has led in the D-FW area. She said the group plans to approach other city councils about joining the lawsuit.

"It's not going to be expensive for them," she said of the cities that haven't joined.

Within the last several months, Denton Police Chief Lee Howell and Denton County Sheriff Tracy Murphree have spoken to local activist groups about the implications of the new law. Representatives from both departments have made appearances at information sessions, some of which drew close to 250 people, to quell local immigrants' concerns about the way they investigate crimes.

They maintain that deportation is a federal matter in which local police have no authority. While the city and county departments honor federal ICE detainers, they say the question of immigration status is rarely pertinent during an investigation or a traffic stop. It's typically up to the discretion of the officer.

Still, many Hispanics in the community remain wary of the extent of an officer's discretion. Lilyan Prado Carrillo, chairwoman of Denton's Hispanic Women's Network of Texas,  emphasized that point through tears before the City Council meeting. 

"I have my citizenship now, but this is still something that worries me," said a teary-eyed Prado-Carrillo. 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882. 

FEATURED PHOTO: Protesters rally together and voice their opinions about Senate Bill 4 on Tuesday at Denton City Hall. Opponents of the state's new "sanctuary city" bill want Denton to join other major Texas cities that have sued the state over SB 4, saying the law is unconstitutional. (Jeff Woo/DRC)