For one thing, it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect the so-called will of the people. Under the new Trump administration (I refuse to call it a presidency), I’m relearning a lot about the most basic processes of our democracy.
I, along with a couple of dozen volunteers and activists from Dallas, joined the ACLU in Austin on Thursday to testify against Senate Bill 4 (SB4), more popularly known as the “Anti-Sanctuary Cities” bill. Introduced by State Senator Charles Perry (R-District 28), the bill threatens to withhold state funding for any city or municipality that refuses to enforce federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers. ICE detainers are requests to law enforcement agencies to hold a suspect in custody while ICE determines his or her immigration status.
Governor Abbott doubles down on anti-immigration position
Our shockingly cruel Governor, Greg Abbott, had already tried to flex the muscles of the state the day before the hearing by announcing that was canceling about $1.5 million in state grants earmarked for Austin, after newly elected Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said that her officers would no longer cooperate with ICE agents inquiring about suspected unauthorized immigrants in custody, except for those accused of murder, sexual assault, or human trafficking.
The state grants Abbott canceled weren’t just intended for law enforcement. As this article from KVUE points out, the grants were to support projects such as “family violence education and a special court for veterans.” Abbott has also asked all state agencies to send him a list of other grants meant for Austin, suggesting that his threat would include the withdrawal of other, non-criminal justice funds.
Sheriff Hernandez hasn’t backed down, and her steadfast refusal to buckle under Abbott’s fascist regime has generated national attention, not to mention the support of Texas State Representative Eddie Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a Democrat, launched a fundraising drive on Friday to offset the financial loss resulting from the governor’s action. Rep. Rodriguez’s project, called Travis Country #StrongerTogether, has partnered with the Austin Community Foundation to ensure that all donated funds (which are tax-deductible) will be funneled quickly and efficiently to the Austin agencies and organizations affected by the Governor’s funding cuts.
Senate Bill 4 (SB4), authored by Sen. Charles Perry, promises to make Abbott’s threat to the Travis County Sheriff the law of the land. Abbott declared it an emergency item on Tuesday, which meant that it shot up to the top of the list of legislative bills our state law makers will consider during the current session. Since the Texas legislature only meets for about four months every two years, there’s clearly a lot of pressure to get this bill passed and become state law as soon as possible.
The ACLU, of course, is equally determined that that doesn’t happen.
Some of us still (okay, I anyway) processing and reeling from the daily onslaught of horror oozing out of the White House in the form of executive orders, media scandals, and petty fights, missed all these gubernatorial shenanigans. It’s still hard for me to believe that it’s only been two weeks. Two. Fucking. Weeks. That it was just last Saturday (a week ago!!!) that I joined several hundred of my fellow Texans at D/FW International Airport in protest against Trump’s immigration ban and to call for the release of those detained at that airport. .
Still, when the ACLU’s North Texas organizer put out a call for volunteers to head down to Austin on Thursday to submit oral testimony against SB4, I jumped at the chance. To be honest, although I’m an immigrant myself (now a US citizen), immigration issues had never been one of my major “causes.” Animal rights, women’s human rights, and reproductive rights have all been my priority causes, and my philanthropic activities reflect those priorities.
However, in these end times, for as long as Trump & Bannon & Co. occupy the White House, I’ve come to the realization that when democracy itself is at stake, it pays to look outside one’s pet causes. It’s all hands on deck now, folks. Our greatest strength is our ability and willingness to reach across these zones of personal missions and blend our voices in collective protest.
Besides, I’m under no illusion that this is going to be a short-lived revolution to what I call the ‘inevitable’ impeachment finale. If we’re going to be in here for the long-haul, it’s probably a good thing to educate ourselves as much as possible on how to actually win this battle. I’d never attended a legislative hearing before, and certainly never testified in one. I’d watched plenty of hearings on C-SPAN and CNN, but even though I’ve visited the State Capitol (as well as Capitol Hill in DC) at least a dozen times in my life, I’ve never actually witnessed my lawmakers in action. Usually when I visit the chambers are empty.
And now here was a chance to not only watch democracy at work, but to actually be in the middle of it. And I’d get to learn how a bill becomes a law. Or not. I imagined that there would be plenty to learn about how to fight back when our elected representatives fail to do their job and bend to the will of the people.
The Dream Crashes Against the Reality
It’s funny, but there’s what you learn in State Government 101 in college, and then there’s what actually happens in the legislative chambers. While some of the hearing did echo scenes from that James Stewart classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so much of it was really about…waiting. Lots and lots and lots of waiting. Maybe most bills sail through committee and both houses fairly quickly, but SB4 did not. Here’s a quick timeline of how my day actually unfolded:
2:00 am – Alarm goes off. I snooze it about 4 times before I finally haul myself out of bed at…
2:25 am – I dress in the only suit in my closet that was freshly dry-cleaned, then gather some basic toiletries and a change of clothing should I end up having to stay the night in Austin. Joe, the ACLU organizer, said that, depending on how many people sign up to testify, the hearing could last through the night, so I didn’t want to take any chances.
3:00 am – I pull out of the driveway right on the hour.
4:55 am – I find out that one of the Starbucks in Waco (about halfway between Dallas and Waco) opens at 4 am. Wa-HEY! I order a grande misto, whole milk, plus a couple of petite vanilla scones. I suddenly realize that I’m nervous and have a hard time eating even those tiny bites.
6:53 am – I pull into a parking spot in the mostly-empty Capitol Building Visitors Parking Garage. Joe had warned us that the parking garage may fill up quickly, so I wanted to get there as early as possible to avoid any parking hassles.
7:15 am – Joe texts me and says that he and others in the group who had driven down in a van were having breakfast, and that we would meet in the Capitol Rotunda between 7:30 and 7:45 am. I had plenty of time to get another misto at the Starbucks on Congress Ave., across the street from the Capitol building, before heading inside and waiting under the massive dome.
8:00 am – Joe and the others arrive, and we hurriedly join the hundreds who were already circling two floors of the Rotunda, waiting to register to testify.
8:45 am – Several people who had already registered directed us to an area in the Extension building of the Capitol, where they said numerous kiosks were open for registration. Why did no one tell us this earlier? Several of us hurry down to the Extension, which turned out to be in a part of the Capitol I’d never known existed, even though I’ve been there so many times before. It’s so funny what you learn about a place when you’re there for a reason, and not just as a tourist.
9:10 am – We settle into the overflow room, which is also located in the Extension building, since the Gallery above the Senate Chambers was reportedly full. By then most of the Dallas delegation had dispersed throughout the building — we had lost track of each other after the registration confusion. At this point, it was just me, Maren, David, and Christy. We weren’t sure where anyone else was, but Joe did stay in touch via text. We exchanged various messages with him asking when and how we would expect to be called, since the overflow room was a good walk from the Chambers. We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss our opportunity.
We watched the hearing via the closed-circuit TV in the overflow room, and several times we burst into applause or jeers, depending on what was being discussed. The Senate State Affairs Committee, which was the first stop for SB4, was being addressed by Sen. Perry as he discussed the specifics of the bill and fielded questions from the Committee members. It was clear early on who among the Committee supported the bill, and who opposed it.
11:15 am – I started hearing my stomach grumble. Loudly. I worried out loud that if I were to be called soon, I might have to give my testimony on an empty stomach and that, god forbid, the mic might pick up the sound. I was serious, too. It was that loud. Maren and I texted Joe to see if we had time to grab something to eat because there wasn’t any indication that the Committee was going to break for lunch soon. (As it turned out, the Committee never did take a break. Individual Committee members would take turns taking breaks, but otherwise the hearing continued without stopping.)
Joe said that the Gallery was starting to clear and had plenty of available seats, so we were welcome to come back upstairs. We told him we’d get something to eat and then move up there.
Despite my hunger, I still felt too nervous to eat anything substantial, so I bought a bottle of water and two hard-boiled eggs from the Capitol Grill cafeteria. We pretty much just inhale our food while sitting on a bench outside the overflow room — no food or drink allowed in the room — then head to the Gallery.
11:45(-ish) – We find seats in the Gallery overlooking the Senate Chamber and settle in. The Committee had completed its discussions and questioning of Sen. Perry and his two invited witnesses, and had started the public testimony part of the hearing around 11:30. Throughout the morning, several protestors had to be escorted out of the Gallery or Chamber for disrupting the hearing with chants, large banners, and/or loud noises. The Committee Chair had to issue warnings several times to the Gallery that any disruption — including applauses and cheers — would not be tolerated and could result in the Committee clearing the Gallery. I could understand the activists’ passion and enthusiasm, but at the same time I also understood why the Committee wanted to strictly enforce the no-applause rule: by noon, more than 400 people had reportedly registered to give oral testimony on the bill, and if each one took up their allotted two minutes, that meant that the public testimony part alone would take up more than 13 hours. And it was already noon.
7:00 pm – By now, we had been sitting in the Gallery for over seven hours, but to our surprise, we were rarely bored. Sure, at times I’d check out what new horror Donald Trump had unleashed on Twitter, but otherwise the public testimonials were so compelling, and delivered with such conviction and power, that we remained glued to our seats with our eyes focused on the hearing below. Several people cried, others stood up and directly addressed the Committee members with anger and righteous indignation in their voices. One woman broke down crying as she spoke, so much so that it was difficult to understand her testimony. Most spoke about the damage the bill would do to families and individuals, that the bill was a racist and inhumane piece of legislation that targeted even legal immigrant, that it would drive more people underground and prevent them from cooperating with law enforcement as witnesses or victims of a crime for fear of being detained and arrested on suspicion of violating immigration statutes. Several brave activists did not shy away from saying that they themselves were undocumented immigrants, and that the bill would tear apart their families and destroy their chances to contribute to American society.
Quite a few immigration lawyers testified as well, and their clear, jargon-free explanations of why the proposed bill was too broad in scope to implement, and how it revealed a lack of understanding of how immigration law and ICE actually worked, were welcomed by the audience and the two Democratic Senators on the Committee.
Some of the most potent arguments and testimonies against SB4 were delivered by county sheriffs and police officers, nearly all of whom argued that this would strain already limited resources and budgets, and undermine the trust and cooperation they had worked so hard to foster in their communities. If I remember correctly, sheriffs from San Antonio, Bexar County, and Hurst were among several representatives from law enforcement agencies around the state who came to testify. I resented on their behalf the fact that they had to take time away from what I know is a very stressful job already, just so that they can voice their concerns about a bill authored by a CPA with no law enforcement or criminal justice experience.
That’s right: Senator Perry, the author of SB4, which deeply affects the work of law enforcement agents throughout the state of Texas, is an accountant.
7:15 pm – Maren and I dash into the House Members’ Lounge in the basement area of the Extension building, where junior Representative Victoria Neave — for whom we had both made campaign phone calls while we were part of the Hillary for North Texas campaign in the fall — had generously provided lots of pizza, chips, cookies, sodas, and water to anyone who was there to oppose SB4. We still weren’t sure when we were going to be called to testify, but we had a feeling it was going to be soon, so we very, very quickly shoved pizza into our mouths, not really caring how we looked.
That turned out to be the right move, because within minutes after we started eating, Joe called both of us and said our names had just been called. Yikes! At last.
8:00 pm – We made our way back to the Rotunda, this time entering the Senate Chamber itself. We sat in chairs along the windows on one side of the Chamber while we waited for the panel before us to finish their testimony.
8:25 pm – I joined four others at the table opposite the Committee and waited for my turn to give my testimony. By the time my time came, so much of my tension and nerves had disappeared (a long, long day of waiting does that to you, I guess), and hearing my story come out of my own voice, and having the opportunity to be heard on the Senate floor by my state legislators, gave me a confidence and strength I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t remember much of the actual testimony itself — I think heightened moments do that to you — but I do remember taking a deep breath and breathing in so much relief as well as pride once I was done. I was so incredibly proud of us, of what we had just done, of what we had worked so hard to do.
I was the 306th person to testify that day. I only know that because after I had completed my testimony, Sen. Eddie Lucio asked the Chair (Sen. Bryan Hughes) how many more people were waiting to testify. Sen. Hughes said 306 had testified, and they still had over 300 waiting to do so.
8:45-9:15 – We took some time to celebrate (probably a little too raucously) near the stairwell outside the Senate Chamber, and even one of the sergeant at arms came over to congratulate us on our work. Joe looked like the proud father, and couldn’t shower enough praises about how well we’d done, considering how little time we had to put this all together. It was hard to believe that most of us had only met the day before, when we all met in Joe’s apartment in Oak Cliff to discuss the hearing, learn about the details of the bill, finalize our draft testimonies, and time our delivery to make sure that we didn’t go over the strict two-minute limit. (Mine came in at around 1:30.)
9:30 – I said my goodbyes to the rest of the Dallas contingent, who were leaving in a van the ACLU provided for the event. I had chosen to drive on my own since I wasn’t sure what everyone else’s schedule was, and frankly, I like long-distance driving, even if it was the middle of the night and I hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours the last 2 days.
1:15 am – I arrive back home feeling like death. Before I go to sleep, I turn on my phone one last time and check the #sb4 hashtag on Twitter. Shortly after 12:45 am, after over 500 members of the public had provided testimony that overwhelmingly opposed passage of the bill (I counted only about 7-8 who had testified for the bill out of the hundreds that I heard) the Committee closed the hearing and voted.
Next week, SB4 will be considered by the full Texas Senate. The battle has only just begun.