El Cenizo is a tiny Texas town on the rambling Rio Grande River -- so small that it stretches just half a square mile and has a population just under 4,000. Despite its size, it's preparing to fight a giant.
In early May, the town’s mayor, Raul Reyes, thrust his community into the national immigration debate when he filed a lawsuit on the city's behalf against the second-largest state in the country. At issue is Texas' new "sanctuary cities" law, formally known as Senate Bill 4 (SB 4).
The law empowers local police to ask about people’s immigration status when they’ve been detained, and it imposes harsh financial penalties on any municipality that limits local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. El Cenizo, however, has a 1999 law on its books that bans local officials from inquiring about immigration status.
Critics say SB 4 is similar to a law in Arizona that the U.S. Supreme Court largely struck down in 2012. It also partially mirrors an executive order that President Donald Trump signed, which has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge.
Since El Cenizo took legal action, it's been joined by a growing chorus of opposition. Last week, the ACLU of Texas joined the suit, which now also includes nearby Maverick County, the Maverick County Sherriff, the Maverick County Constable and the Texas chapter of United Latin American Citizens. The county of El Paso has also filed its own lawsuit.
The controversy has incited protesters and politicians alike. On Memorial Day, a peaceful protest against SB 4 ended with threats of violence between lawmakers. Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi told Democratic colleagues that he had reported the protesters -- some of whom carried signs that said they were undocumented immigrants -- to federal authorities. That sparked a heated argument in which Rinaldi allegedly said he would “put a bullet in [Democratic Rep. Alfonso Nevarez's] head."
Through the public tumult, Mayor Reyes -- who was elected over a decade ago at the age of 21 -- has remained steadfast. He has consistently expressed his determination to keep El Cenizo’s sanctuary policies in place, regardless of the consequences.
Governing spoke with Reyes last week about the lawsuit, his stance on a border wall and about what it was like to run for office before he could legally drink. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did you decide to take this kind of stand, even though the city could face debilitating fines for it?
I think it's important that we stay true to our values and that we do whatever we have to do to end any type of discrimination or injustice. Let there be no mistake: This law is dangerous and discriminatory. Somebody in this country needs to be a voice for those people out there who have no voice and live in fear.
The notion that sanctuary cities are communities that welcome criminal aliens or that harbor dangerous illegal criminals is -- just like I've been saying all this time -- a false narrative. Any person who commits a crime, who poses a threat to the well-being of our community, our state or our country, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It doesn’t matter if you’re a citizen or an undocumented immigrant.
When it comes to keeping our communities safe, we have to understand one thing: The people who are here illegally contribute to local economic activity, pay their property taxes and pay for their city services. Those are all things that cities depend on to be able to provide basic needs and create a better community for future generations to enjoy.
Some officials in your town, including the police chief, don't agree with the lawsuit. What have been the reactions in the community to your decision to sue?
Immigration is a very sensitive and complex issue, and I understand the position of law enforcement. They're in a very tough spot right now. We need to understand that communities depend on the brave men and women in uniform. But we also need to understand that they're here to protect our community and serve people within the jurisdiction that they serve. To impose additional responsibilities onto law enforcement, in particular immigration enforcement responsibilities, without providing them the necessary skills and training ... there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how that would work.
I know there's some skepticism out there that this lawsuit is just liberals and the left trying to instill fear in people, but that's not true at all. I've yet to hear from somebody from my community, even on social media, speak ill of my stance. People understand the severity of a law like this. We've seen what happens when law enforcement calls immigration during a routine traffic stop; we know what it's like when families are separated; we know of our neighbors and close friends who've been deported.
You've said in other interviews that this issue is just as much about local control as it is immigration. Can you elaborate on that?
The state of Texas is overstepping its authority. It’s limiting municipalities from the authority that we have, trying to tell us what we should do. I've said this all along: Just like the state of Texas doesn't like the federal government to tell them how to run their state, municipalities don't like it when the state tries to tell us how to run our communities.
The people who passed this bill, they have no idea -- I daresay they've never been to border communities, so they don't know what goes on or what our challenges are. This is a trickle-down effect from the continued hatred and divide we've seen since the election of President Trump.
What role does immigration and border-crossing play in El Cenizo and border towns like it? How does it influence daily life in the town?
Border communities depend on economic activity across the border, on border crossings and trade with Mexico. A lot of us have family on the other side, so we go and visit, or they come here. They adopt some of our culture from the U.S.; we adopt some of theirs. Life on the border is unique. We experience the effects of Mexico, and Mexico experiences the effects of the United States.
I've read in several articles that you support building a border wall.
That was a sound byte that has been misconstrued. Anyone who follows my public service career and my stances would know I have been a strong advocate against building physical barriers on the border. I do support the idea of building a "virtual wall," with state-of-the-art technology that will be cost-effective in terms of providing the security that communities across the border could benefit from.
I just don't see how a physical barrier is going to prevent immigration into our country. We already have a physical barrier; we have a river that is wide and stretches many miles across the border. It just doesn't make sense why our federal government would spend so much money on building this physical structure. Let's invest a portion of that money on things that do work.
You were elected mayor at just 21. What made you want to run, especially that young?
We moved to El Cenizo back in 1992, when it was transitioning from a colonia to a small municipality. I moved here with my single mom, who raised 5 boys all on her own. During that time, we had no electricity, no running water, no paved streets. For me, it was remembering having to use the restroom in buckets; having to go outside in our backyard and dig a hole to dispose of human solids and then cover them up. Those were the primary factors that started to move something in me or develop a passion toward doing something in my community. I've been volunteering and doing so many things since I was 14. I ran for mayor once when I was 19 and lost. Then I ran again at 21, in November of 2004, and they allowed me to serve.
What's next for you? Are you going to run for re-election in 2018? I know you're also going to graduate school.
I'm very excited that I already finished my last course for my master’s in public administration. I take my comprehensive exams in December and hopefully then I'll be walking the stage and receiving my diploma. I'm dedicating this to my mom, who has been the pillar of our family and shown me what true strength is really about. My mom has been battling breast cancer for a year now, and my determination to help others I owe to her.
I'm going to continue to fulfill my obligations as mayor for the rest of my term, but we'll see what happens in November 2018. I think after 14 years it's time to pass on the leadership torch to someone else. But people in my community are really exceptional, and they somehow keep managing to convince me to run again.
Right now I'm looking to just spend as much time as possible with my mom. I’m looking forward to December and looking forward to the day that the courts declare Senate Bill 4 unconstitutional.
Speaking of SB 4, what are the next steps in the lawsuit?
As of noon on Friday the 19th, the Texas governor and the Attorney General have been served. We are expecting answers with regard to some of the vague terminology in the bill. We anticipate that they're not going to respond to the request. So after June 6, which should be 21 days after the initial serving, we are going to proceed with whatever steps necessary to ensure that we have successful hearings. We’re going to build a case to prove that this bill is not only a dangerous bill but a discriminatory bill that should be declared unconstitutional.
What we have been saying all along is that this isn't about El Cenizo or the state of Texas, it's about the future of our country. Many states are looking at what’s happening right now in Texas, and whatever the federal court determines, this will set the tone for people continuing to implement discriminatory anti-immigrant policies that have no place in this country.