The teens caught in the middle of Austin’s Sanctuary City debate
It’s late Wednesday evening when Kandace Vallejo, director of Youth Rise Texas, starts passing out chips and salsa to a group of teenagers gathered in an East Austin community space.
The eight young people sit in a circle, some on couches and others on the floor, under a large hand-painted sign on the wall that says “Migration is a Human Right.” She asks how their week is going. Their energy is heavy. The week before, federal immigration and customs enforcement agents arrested more than 680 people in raids across five cities. Austin wasn’t listed as a target by Homeland Security. But the teens worry that next time, it could be.
“I’m worried,” Jordy Balderas, 16, said. “My sister heard something on the radio that said that ICE raids are happening in this area.”
The teens meeting with Vallejo are all members of Youth Rise Texas, a leadership development organization for teens directly impacted by parental incarceration, immigrant detention and deportation.
They’ve spent the last two months lobbying against Texas Senate Bill 4, which says officials in towns, cities and, college campuses in Texas must cooperate with any request by federal immigration officials.
That night, Texas lawmakers passed the bill through the Senate.
“I feel emotionally drained, with everything that is going on,” Silvia Zuvieta-Rodriguez, 18, said from her perch on the couch.
Austin is a “sanctuary city,” one of several across the country that say they will not prosecute undocumented immigrants for violating federal immigration rules. They also guarantee all residents, regardless of immigration status, can access city services.
Texas’ SB4 would strip local governments of state grant funding if their law enforcement agencies fail to honor all requests from federal I.C.E. officers to hand over undocumented immigrants for possible deportation. Jurisdictions and department heads could also face civil and criminal prosecution if they violate the provisions of the bill.
The legislation came three weeks after President Donald Trump ordered the construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and signed executive actions to ramp up federal immigration and custom enforcement, including more detention facilities and border patrol agents. He also called for stripping federal funding from sanctuary cities. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also called on Texas legislators to make sanctuary cities illegal.
I.C.E said in a statement Feb. 13 that the types of raids they carried out last week are routine, and only target those “who pose a threat to public safety, border security or the integrity of our nation’s immigration system.”
But for those living or working in undocumented communities, these raids feel like Trump’s first step towards fulfilling campaign promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
“One thing that is really clear to me is that young people whose families have been impacted by separation from the criminal justice system or by deportation carry the trauma and the impacts of that separation for the rest of their lives,” Vallejo said. “We are living in a moment where we are [sending a message to] millions of children across the United States who have every right to be here and who are born here that they are not important enough or worth fighting for to keep their families with them.”
Thirty-seven percent of Americans support a wall along the southern border with Mexico, according to a new CBS poll. But 61 percent said they believed immigrants already in the U.S. should be able to stay in the country and apply for citizenship.
The divide over immigration reform is stark in border states like Texas. This week, Trump tweeted that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose sanctuary city policies, according to a Harvard-Harris Poll. The survey found that 80 percent of voters say local authorities should have to comply with the law by reporting illegal immigrants they come into contact with to federal agents.
'Americans overwhelmingly oppose sanctuary cities' https://t.co/s5QvsJWA6u
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 21, 2017
Though there has been an outpouring of demonstrations against Senate Bill 4 in the capitol, there remains strong support for the bill throughout the rest of the state.
“Immigration is not a right, it is a privilege,” says Jathan Young, the 21-year-old chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas at Baylor University.
Baylor University is a private Baptist college in Waco, Texas. Halfway between Austin and Dallas, it’s home to a more religious and rural community. Last week, when a petition was filed by religious groups to make Baylor a sanctuary campus, Young mobilized several conservative organizations to print and pass out brochures against the motion. They also emailed the University president to voice their opposition to the petition. He says he supports SB4 because it supports the idea of the law being applied equally.
“You can’t just ignore laws that you don’t like and follow ones that you do like,” he says.
Another common argument cited by those who want to see SB4 pass the legislature is the number of undocumented residents who go on to commit multiple crimes after being released from county jails. One such incident resulted in the death of Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old California woman who was shot in San Francisco by Juan Francisco Lopez Sanchez. Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican immigrant who entered the country illegally, had been convicted of seven felonies and deported five times before his encounter with Steinle.
Jonathan Gaspard, the policy director for the Young Republicans of Texas, feels that incidents like the shooting of Steinle prove that it is important to allow local officials the authority and the option to turn undocumented criminals over to I.C.E. if they deem them a threat to the community.
Gaspard says that while Democrats have brought up valid arguments against the bill, he still supports the majority of the legislation. He has many family members from Mexico, some who live in Durango and others who immigrated here legally, and he feels for families that might be split apart if this legislation goes into effect.
“I believe that that emotion is valid among people who feel it, but I believe that you have to get down to the root,” he said. “The law is the law. If somebody hasn’t done anything wrong then they have nothing to worry about.”
Texas SB4 now heads to the House for consideration. It’s not clear when legislators will review the bill, or whether they will make changes. PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs sat down with teens from Youth Rise Texas to hear about their reaction to the legislation in Texas as well as Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Here’s what they shared with us.
Silvia Zuvieta-Rodriguez, 18
Silvia Zuvieta-Rodriguez was born in the U.S. But, as the daughter of parents with mixed immigration status, she remembers growing up with the fear that her father would be deported.
“I knew about deportation and immigration at the age of 6 or 7,” she says. “I just grew up with that constant anxiety.”
Her worst fears became reality when her father was deported to Mexico four years ago. Her mother, a U.S. resident, was left alone to raise the family. Her brother, then two, asked every day about his father. Rodriguez became suicidal. She says Youth Rise has helped her move forward from the pain and trauma. But it’s still there. Tears well in her eyes when she talks about him missing her quinceanera and upcoming graduation.
“It hurts. I had to be a second mom to my brother,” she said. “I’ve had to take care of him, I’ve had to raise him,” she says, while dealing with her own depression and diabetes.
Silvia dreams of one day becoming a politician, so that she can work on behalf of people like her in Texas who have been impacted by ICE. She wants politicians to know how policy affects local communities, and feels there is a need for politicians to communicate directly with those impacted by legislation.
“Activism has been one of the things that have most helped me in terms of dealing with my anger and frustration and sadness,” she says. “Just talking about it and making sure that politicians know the reason that I’m dealing with all of this is because of [the policies they create].”
She says it feels good to “know that I’m making sure that other families don’t go through what I go through.”
Briceida Aviles, 16
Briceida Aviles’ parents both came to the United States from Mexico when they were young and integrated into American culture from an early age. So she didn’t grow up with the same kind of anxiety Rodriguez did.
That changed a few years ago, when her father was stopped for driving with a broken tail light. His car was searched and police found his son’s ID. Since he wasn’t carrying his own identification, they thought he was using his son’s card illegally. He spent two months in jail awaiting deportation proceedings while his family hired lawyers to fight the case.
Ultimately, Aviles’ father avoided deportation. Now, even though she doesn’t have her driver’s license, she tries to drive her father to places he needs to go whenever she can.
“It’s better they catch me than if they catch him,” she said.
She wants to become a criminal justice lawyer because she has seen first hand how the legal system can affect immigrants’ lives.
Aviles respects police officers. But she says she wishes she could trust more within her own community. She knows some law enforcement officials are trying to work with Latino communities in Austin to improve community policing. But she has also seen how racial profiling has impacted people she knows. She’s frustrated that American citizens can be let go with a fine for crimes that,for an undocumented person, would lead to deportation proceedings.
“Not everybody views us the same way as they view other people,” she says.
In November, Austin-area voters elected Sally Hernandez to be the next Sheriff of Travis County. Hernandez campaigned on a promise to stop federal immigration and customs officials from interfering in local law enforcement. Villez likes the policies Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez is trying to pursue in Austin, and hopes they survive challenges like Texas SB4.
Jordy Balderas, 16
Jordy Balderas was born in the United States to undocumented parents. When he was 3, his mother grew ill. She returned to Mexico, Balderas in tow, to seek medical treatment. He was raised mostly in Mexico, but returned to the United States last year to live with his sister and father because of increased gang violence. His mother stayed behind.
Since moving back to the states, he has developed a close relationship with many other immigrants in his community. He now sees them as family. Being far away from his mother has been tough on him, and he hopes to one day be reunited with her.
His goal for now: Help his people any way he can.
“With all that is going on, I feel they are being abandoned by the government,” he says.
Balderas says he was drawn to Youth Rise because the organization helps him have a voice and speak up for his family that cannot be heard. He speaks fondly of the school walkout organized by Youth Rise on Jan. 20 to protest the inauguration of President Trump– it was the first time he felt powerful.
Balderas also attended the public hearing on Senate Bill 4 at the Texas State Capitol, where more than 500 people — largely in opposition to the legislation — testified about the effects of the bill. Though Balderas says attending these events made him proud, the passage of SB4 from the Senate to the House has left him feeling frustrated and pessimistic.
“Right now I’m just thinking about a plan for what happens in case my family gets deported,” he tells us, staring off into the corner of the room.
His father isn’t a U.S.citizen. Neither is his sister, who has two little girls.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to my nieces if she is deported,” he said. “I don’t know if we go with them or we stay, because here I have no one who can take care of me.”
About Student Reporting Labs: The PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs initiative is building the next generation of public media. By connecting middle and high school students to PBS stations, mentors and role models in their communities, the program creates transformative educational experiences. Students engage in a powerful form of journalistic inquiry, media production and student-centered learning that builds critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, information and communication skills. By giving them a voice and the opportunity to reach millions of people via the PBS NewsHour broadcast and digital platforms, the program inspires youth to speak up and be part of the solution. These interviews were produced in collaboration with the Student Reporting Labs project, “New Americans: Stories of immigration, identity, and community through the eyes of teenagers.