About 70 protesters are at the corner of 9th & Congress in downtown Austin where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is speaking. Activists say they're demonstrating against the Trump’s administration's immigration priorities.
In a visit to Austin Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stoked fears of immigrant “pedophiles” and “drug dealers” and bashed “sanctuary cities” as havens for cop-killers. Outside, about 70 protesters chanted, held signs and eventually laid a trampled Klansman robe in front of Sessions’ motorcade.
“For decades, the American people have been begging and pleading with their elected officials for an immigration system that’s lawful,” Sessions said during a plodding 20-minute speech delivered at the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Austin. “Now we have a president who supports that.”
Sessions lauded the White House’s recently released hardline immigration agenda as a “breath of fresh air.” The attorney general called for a border wall, more immigration agents and judges, a merit-based immigration system and a crackdown on purported asylum fraud.
Sessions singled out Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, saying it had encouraged “tens of thousands of vulnerable children to make the trip to the north.” He recounted two instances in which DACA recipients, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers,” were arrested for serious crimes and claimed that 2,000 people have lost their DACA status as a result of crimes, which would constitute about 0.25 percent of total recipients. The program, which provides protection from deportation for hundreds of thousands of people, is set to end on March 5 and awaits congressional action.
But Sessions saved his strongest venom for “sanctuary cities,” which limit local cooperation with federal immigration agents.
“So-called sanctuary policies undermine the moral authority of law and undermine the safety of the jurisdictions that adopt them,” he said. “Think about it: Police may be forced to release pedophiles … drug dealers, arsonists back into the community where they have no right to be in the first place.”
For months, Sessions has threatened to withhold federal grants from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, but he’s been repeatedly stymied by the courts. Most recently, a federal judge in Illinois temporarily froze his effort to withhold public safety funds from cities that don’t honor immigration detainers, which are requests to extend detention of jailed immigrants so they can be deported. Sessions is appealing the decision.
Late last month, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested nearly 500 immigrants in cities across the country that were targeted by the feds for their “sanctuary” policies. That time around, Austin was left off the list, but in February, Texas’ capital was hit with raids as retaliation for a progressive county policy that rejected some detainers.
In February, Travis County adopted a policy of refusing to honor many immigration detainers. But Sheriff Sally Hernandez erased that policy last month due to an appellate court ruling that allowed parts of Senate Bill 4, Texas’ embattled “sanctuary cities” ban, to go into effect. Hernandez attended Sessions’ speech Friday, but like Sessions, didn’t answer questions from reporters.
Sessions commended the Texas Legislature for passing SB 4. Speaking to an audience comprised mostly of cops and federal agents, Sessions brought up cases in Texas and Kansas of police officers being killed by undocumented drunk drivers, saying “sanctuary policies risk the lives of good law enforcement officers.”
“We will not concede a single block or a single street corner in the United States of America to lawlessness,” Sessions concluded. “To all of you law enforcement here … we have your back.”
Outside the Sessions event, about 70 protesters held signs reading “Go Home You Racist,” “Sanctuary for All” and others that depicted Sessions wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. At one point, protesters laid out a homemade Ku Klux Klan robe at the center of the demonstration for people to step on. Some disability advocates drove over the robe in their electric wheelchairs.
Claudia Muñoz, immigration program director at Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit in Austin fighting mass incarceration, said she was demonstrating in support of “sanctuary cities.” Muñoz immigrated to Austin in 2001 after suffering abuse and violence in Mexico. She told the Observer she moved to Texas in hopes of finding a better life, but her immigration case is still tied up in court.
“I’m fighting my asylum case,” Muñoz said at the protest. “I’m just scared because my family is undocumented, and it’s really important to know my power. Everything this administration is doing directly impacts me and the people I love the most. It’s just about knowing the power the community has to defend ourselves.”
Advocates from the immigration advocacy group United We Dream were also on the scene. Daniel Ramirez, 22, is one of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants protected from deportation under DACA.
Ramirez said he came to the United States at 18 months old and recently graduated college. He depends on DACA to allow him to support his family financially. “It’s not that I feel American, I am American,” Ramirez said. “As immigrants, your life is like a piece in a game that’s political.”
Activists marched with their signs to the parking garage exit where they expected Sessions’ caravan to leave the building. They then laid out the Ku Klux Klan robe and a sign reading “Jeff ‘White Supremacist’ Sessions is in ATX Today” on the street.
After more than an hour of waiting, protesters were moved to the sidewalk by Austin police officers who used their bicycles as a barricade to keep people off the street. Sessions’ caravan then left the building, his vehicle driving over the Klansman robe as he left.