By James Barragán
EL CENIZO -- Leo Ayala parked his white pickup on the Texas banks of the Rio Grande and cast fishing lures toward Mexico into the muddy waters of the Rio Grande on a warm, still Wednesday afternoon.
He comes here a few times a week to fish after working in the oilfields near Laredo. It's usually quiet here, but sometimes, he sees people trying to cross illegally.
"The other day, by Rio Bravo, we saw someone," he said.
A few blocks away, the small town's crest -- half Mexican tricolor, half American stars and stripes with a river down the center -- welcomes visitors to this tiny outpost on the edge of Texas.
On dusty streets a stone's throw from the river, residents who sell food out of their homes flip on their neon "Abierto" signs. Most people here speak Spanish, and it's almost impossible to know who's a U.S. citizen and who might not be.
Even city council meetings are sometimes held in the language.
"It's really wonderful to live on the border," said Mayor Raul Reyes, who last week plunged his sleepy town's 3,800 residents, many of them unauthorized immigrants, into a national debate over immigration and border security.
El Cenizo became the first city to sue Texas over its new "sanctuary cities" ban. The law will punish local governments that prevent police from enforcing immigration laws and will allow officers to ask people about their immigration status during any legal detention.
The town has a nearly two-decade-old ordinance that Reyes says protects all of his city's residents, legal and otherwise, from discrimination. The ordinance puts El Cenizo squarely in violation of the law Gov. Greg Abbott signed last week, but Reyes said he's not about to repeal the city's protections. Even if that means bankrupting the city and losing his job.
"These are our own people," Reyes said. "This is really about doing the right thing, and doing the right thing sometimes means standing up for everyone."
Not everyone in this 99 percent Hispanic outpost, including the local police chief, agrees with the mayor's stance, a reflection of the complex challenges that hundreds of Texas border towns face as they grapple with impending immigration regulations from the state and federal governments.
El Cenizo Police Chief Edgar Garcia, who worked for the Dallas Police Department for four years, refused to join the lawsuit. He said the same sense of bicultural pride and compassion for the city's residents -- regardless of immigration status -- led him to that decision.
"If this is something that has to be implemented in this police department and I have to follow it, I will," he said. "I'm here for the community at the end of the day."
Scared for their neighbors
About half an hour south of Laredo, El Cenizo began as a colonia and didn't become an independent city until 1989. It was first thrust into the national spotlight in 1999 when the city council adopted two ordinances: one that required the city to hold meetings in the predominant language of the town's residents -- Spanish -- and one that prohibited city officials from asking about or helping any agency investigate a person's immigration status.
Rafael Rodriguez was the mayor back then and is still on the council. He said immigration authorities had beefed up enforcement and some city officials were threatening to turn unauthorized immigrants who disagreed with them or complained about city services in to immigration authorities.
"There was lots of controversy when we did that and also lots of people in favor. I even received death threats," Rodriguez said. "[But] what they were doing was harassment and discrimination."
Just five years later, at the tender age of 21, Reyes was elected mayor. Those ordinances, he said, represent the proud bicultural history of his town.
But for him, it's also personal. His grandmother came to the country illegally before gaining her citizenship and starting a life on this side of the river.
"We often forget where we come from," said Reyes, who, after suing the state last week, juggled nearly 40 interviews with studying for final exams for his master's degree in public administration and running his two businesses. "This whole notion that we're in America and we should not care about immigrants? Some of us come from a line of immigrants."
The energetic, brown-skinned mayor, whose hairline has receded since he took the helm of the small town 13 years ago, said he will continue fighting.
"That is what the history of El Cenizo has always been about," he said.
In the lawsuit, Reyes and the Maverick County sheriff, among others, contend that provisions in the sanctuary cities ban that would depose public officials who support sanctuary policies and fine cities that violate the ban are unconstitutional. They also argue that the ban would force police to violate the due process rights of those they detain by requiring them to hold unauthorized immigrants even after their criminal charges are resolved. They want the court to prevent the law from taking effect Sept. 1.
It's also an issue of local control, Reyes said. The city makes ends meet with a budget of just $250,000 a year. The sanctuary cities ban threatens fines of up to $25,000 a day. The city's entire budget would be decimated in less than two weeks.
Unauthorized immigrants have contributed more to their small community than the state government ever has, Reyes said. With their help, El Cenizo over the last decade built its first park and library, created volunteer fire and police departments and paved all the city's roads.
"Just like the state of Texas doesn't like the federal government telling them what to do, municipalities don't like when the state tells them what to do," he said.
'In a bad spot'
Chief Garcia has mixed feelings about the new ban. But he also has problems with the city's sanctuary ordinance, because it takes away his five volunteer police officers' discretion to ask about immigration status.
With both in place, he said, he and his tiny department are in a sticky spot.
If he continues to enforce the city's ordinance after Sept. 1, he could be removed from office and jailed for violating the state ban.
"These past couple of days, I'm losing sleep over it," Garcia said.
Garcia is upbeat, particularly for a stressed police chief. He's short and stocky and runs a trucking business in Laredo, where he lives. Being police chief is his part-time gig to give back to El Cenizo. He's been volunteering here since he was in high school.
He started with the department in January and was promoted to chief in February. The department's budget is so tiny that the mayor pays officers in a monthly stipend and a gym membership. Officers wear donated, second-hand bulletproof vests.
Garcia quietly contemplates before giving long, thoughtful answers about the sanctuary cities ban. He and his officers are just trying to do good for the community, he said. They won't risk violating the new law and facing jail time.
Plus, the law might do some good. If one of his officers detains a person with a violent-crime record, they can ask about their immigration status and report them to immigration authorities.
He's staying out of the lawsuit, because he wants to protect his community against criminal unauthorized immigrants he knows terrorize some residents.
"That person doesn't need to be in the U.S., especially representing me as a Hispanic or a Mexican-American," Garcia said.
But he also recognizes the potential pitfalls. He'd hate to see families torn apart for something as minor as a traffic stop.
If the law goes into effect, he said, he'll ask his officers to use discretion when asking people about their immigration status.
"At the end of the day, I'm a human," he said. "I got a heart and I have feelings and a family. ... So I will feel bad getting that [person] deported."
Garcia also worries that immigrants might stop reporting crimes because they'd be afraid to be deported. He's trying to reassure the city's immigrant population that they will not be asked for papers if they are reporting crimes.
As the mayor fights it out with the state, residents of El Cenizo fearfully watch the state and national debate over immigration and border security.
The state sanctuary cities law is just the most recent controversy about an issue they live every day as they travel back and forth across the Rio Grande to visit family and friends. President Donald Trump has vowed to build a wall that would literally cross their backyards. Like Abbott, he also has promised to penalize cities like theirs that protect unauthorized immigrants -- their friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members.
This scrappy little border town is no stranger to tough times, though. More than 75 percent of people here live under the poverty level, the mayor said. Paint peels off homes that line the city's roughly paved streets. Dilapidated shacks sit on vacant lots scattered throughout the town.
Many residents are immigrants and though they've been living here for years, some of them don't speak English -- even those here legally. That puts them at higher risk for racial profiling.
Maria Vasquez lives in neighboring Rio Bravo but visits El Cenizo every day to play "lotería," a Mexican bingo-like game, at the community center. There, she shares meals with many of the town's elders, some of whom arrived here as unauthorized immigrants.
She has felt a new fear in her neighbors who are in the country illegally. Most people who live in El Cenizo commute to Laredo for work. Under the new law, they could be asked about their immigration status and deported simply for a traffic infraction during their drive, she said.
"It's a bad law," said Margarita Vela, who has lived in the city for 19 years. "There's lots of people who are here illegally but they've built their families here."
Some residents are concerned that the law will hit close to home.
"I don't like it one bit," said Maria Perez, a legal resident who speaks only Spanish. "Not just because it affects my relatives [who are here illegally], but for other people who live here who would be affected."
But opinions about immigration and border security here aren't homogenous. Reyes, the mayor, said people have sent him messages on social media saying he ought to be jailed for declaring he'd violate the new law.
And Reyes' own feelings on immigration aren't clear-cut. He agrees with the police chief that unauthorized immigrants who commit violent crimes should be deported. He just wants to protect people who are living peacefully in his community. That's why he also supports building a border wall.
"I think it would block everything that goes through here -- guns, armors, drugs," he said. "This is pretty much an open border."
He said people try to "box in" the opinions of people in small border towns. But because of their life experiences, their views on issues like sanctuary cities are much more complicated.
"This is not about protecting our own," he said. "This is about protecting civil rights and human rights for everyone."
(c)2017 The Dallas Morning News