Lawmakers and attorneys challenging the “sanctuary cities” ban say the complaints show the law has inflamed anti-immigrant prejudice and wasted taxpayer dollars.
Ever since Texas’s “sanctuary cities” ban was first proposed in late 2016, the measure’s Republican backers have painted it as a public safety measure targeting criminals — without racist or anti-immigrant intent. But records obtained by the Observer reveal that some of the Texas citizens most supportive of the law apparently never got the memo.
Senate Bill 4, among other things, threatens local law enforcement officials who impede cooperation with federal immigration agents with fines, jail time and removal from office. To prosecute wayward officials, the law requires citizens to report violations of SB 4 to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Ken Paxton formally began accepting complaints in September, but the records include a stream of phone calls and emails beginning last February. Of 43 total formal and informal complaints so far, most veered wildly from SB 4’s supposed intent, expressing instead resentment of immigrants and even threatening violence.
“These comments are disturbing to read,” said state Senator José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat and staunch SB 4 opponent. Rodríguez called them part of a general shift toward viewing immigrants in a “national security framework” rather than a human rights one, adding that “during the SB 4 debate, we warned that the attorney general would receive frivolous, anti-immigrant complaints such as these.”
Most disturbing among the complaints is a pair of caps lock-heavy emails from a San Antonio man named Ralph Pulliam. In a January 8 email, under the subject line “sb4complaint,” Pulliam ranted about Hispanic neighbors, whom he called “these Very Thugs,” in his north central neighborhood. Pulliam claimed harassment from an “Army of illegal Aliens” and said he’d been ignored by local law enforcement, but he hoped that with SB 4, something would be done.
If not, Pulliam warned: “WE WILL OPEN FIRE ON THESE THUGS WHO WILL NOT LEAVE US ALONE… WE HAVE CALLED IN OUR OWN HELP AND IT WILL BE A BLOODBATH.” According to records obtained by the Observer, a San Antonio police officer was dispatched in September — four months before Pulliam filed the complaint — for a firearm discharge at Pulliam’s address, where the officer found 9 bullet casings from an AK-47. A spokesperson for the San Antonio city attorney said Paxton’s office never referred the emails to local police.
There was also Donna Rammer, of Allen, who called in a complaint in June and, according to call notes taken by an attorney general’s office employee, “attempted to expound political ideology and strident views about keeping all Democrats and immigrants out of TX.” And Leslie Leoni, of Haltom City, who wrote her complaint after a traffic accident with a woman she believed to be undocumented. “Why do the ILLEGALS get a free pass?” Leoni asked, adding that she wanted her Fort Worth suburb investigated as a potential “sanctuary city.” And Lauro Castro, of Pasadena, who called to report that his church had hired an allegedly undocumented person.
Another complainant, whose name was redacted by the attorney general’s office, wrote to lament that colleges were accommodating undocumented students. The February 6 email cited the University of Texas at San Antonio’s recently opened Dreamers’ Resource Center and an information session held for undocumented students in January at San Antonio College. “Imagine any university official holding a ‘citizens only’ rally!” the complainant wrote.
Three discontents from the “sanctuary state” of California also reached out to Paxton— though to no avail, as complaints are required by the law to originate in the targeted officials’ jurisdictions.
After reviewing the records, state Senator Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat now running for Congress, said SB 4’s complaint process predictably attracted people pursuing their own “narrow agenda” rather than public safety. In an email, Garcia called the process “open to abuse and waste of government resources from frivolous reports.”
Luis Vera, an attorney with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) who is involved in the legal challenge to the “sanctuary cities” ban, added that the complaints are further proof that the measure was about politics rather than safety. “It was always a wedge issue for the Republicans to inflame their base,” he said.
Out of the dozens who communicated with Paxton’s office, only five followed the guidelines laid out in SB 4 by swearing their complaints before a notary or submitting an “unsworn declaration.” Four of the five centered on a high-profile incident involving San Antonio Police Chief William McManus — currently the focus of the only investigation of a potential SB 4 violation.
In late December, an SAPD officer encountered what appeared to be 12 immigrants being smuggled into the country in an 18-wheeler. When McManus arrived on the scene, he made the unusual decision to charge the truck’s driver using a state smuggling statute rather than turn him over to the feds. After questioning, McManus released the immigrants to a local nonprofit, effectively shielding them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
That set off a firestorm: The head of the local police union called for McManus to be put on administrative leave; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urged Paxton to investigate whether McManus violated SB 4; and Paxton informed city officials on January 10 that he had received “several” complaints and was launching an investigation.
But will anything come of this taxpayer-funded investigation? SB 4 — which is still being fought over in the courts — forbids any local policy that bans or “materially limits” cooperation between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, and forces jailers to extend detention of undocumented immigrants at the request of ICE.
McManus says his choice was an isolated decision that didn’t represent a new policy and that an ICE agent had every opportunity to intervene and take the individuals into custody. An ICE spokesperson has contradicted that, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the agency offered assistance and was rebuffed.
Vera, the LULAC attorney, said that the chief’s decision wouldn’t violate SB 4 because it didn’t represent a policy of non-cooperation. “[Paxton] doesn’t have a case,” he told the Observer. “If he had a case, he would’ve filed it already.”
The Observer requested an update on the ongoing investigation, but San Antonio officials deferred to the AG’s office, which declined to provide any information or comment for this story despite repeated requests. Any officials charged in the case could face a fine up to $1,500 and removal from office, under the provisions of SB 4.