Special Report: Safe Haven

Posted: Updated: Feb 18, 2016 04:13 PM

EL CENIZO – Sanctuary cities are spurring debate all over Texas. A handful of major cities act as a safe haven for people who cross illegally.

A small town in Texas sits tucked away on the edge of the Rio Grande River is one of those places.

A few convenience stores dot the landscape. It looks like much like any other that separates the U.S. from Mexico. “The town is okay. We love it,” a store owner said.

The town of El Cenizo, with the population similar to La Joya, welcomes people who are in the country illegally. It is a sanctuary city.

A protective ordinance was passed in 1990. The ordinance states, “The city council has enacted this ordinance disallowing any city employee or elected official to disclose the national origin, immigration status or citizenship of any of its residents to any agency or individual. Violators are subject to termination or impeachment.”

“We advertise ourselves as Webb County’s friendly neighborhood,” El Cenizo’s Mayor Raul Reyes said.

The town protects people like Maria Isabel Renteria. “My entire family was here, and I couldn’t be in Nuevo Laredo. There’s a lot of violence. It’s very dangerous these days,” she said about her hometown.

Renteria’s children have permits to study in the U.S. She’s in the country illegally.

Under the city’s ordinance local police and city government can’t question her citizenship status, unless she breaks the law. It protects her only to the El Cenizo city limits.

“It’s not our job. Our job is to take care of our community. To make sure it continues to operate. To make sure we still have a city the following day,” Reyes said.

Reyes became mayor when he was still a college student. He described the town as a community filled with hard-working families. He said people who cross over illegally and make a life in El Cenizo help the city’s economy grow.

Next to El Cenizo is a town called Rio Bravo. A stretch of road connects the two towns.

Luxsandra Guerra is a sergeant with the Rio Bravo Police Department. The law even applies to them when they get called in to help.

“If there’s a life threatening, this is El Cenizo, if there’s a life threatening or they call us for assistance to back up, then we’ll go ahead and assist,” Guerra said.

The town, where people in the country illegally can live openly, was once a colonia.

Reyes said El Cenizo’s government was so corrupt back then they would purposely call Border Patrol on people who didn’t see eye-to-eye with city officials. He said the policy was needed to protect them all from discrimination.

“Sanctuary cities weren’t developed because we want to welcome and invite or encourage more illegal immigration,” Reyes stated.

The issue goes beyond El Cenizo. State law makers are working to find some common ground for sanctuary cities.

A hearing took place in Austin where witnesses testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Border Security.

Janet Thomas, a woman from Katy, sat before the lawmakers and gave her testimony. “There was an illegal alien from Guatemala in San Antonio last year. They finally caught him,” she stated, “He’d been raping this little girl, since she was four years old. This is what sanctuary city policy does.”

San Antonio isn’t technically a sanctuary city, no ordinance calling it that exists. The police department does have immigration practices in place.

The department leaves immigration issues up to federal authorities, but any immigrant who has outstanding warrants or is a wanted person will be arrested. Officers have the right to check the status of any individual legally detained. This example demonstrates the confusion within the state over legal status and how to police it.

People around the state are watching.

“The law is cold. The law is not feeling,” George Rodriguez said. He’s with the Tea Party Patriots out of San Antonio.

He said it’s simple – people who cross the border illegally are breaking the law.

“If you have a sanctuary city for one group of individuals who have broken one certain law, why not have sanctuary cities for another group of people who have broken another law?” Rodriguez asked.

Rodriguez isn’t against immigrants coming to the U.S., as long as it’s legal. He called sanctuary cities “magnets” for more illegal immigration.

Back in El Cenizo, Renteria is stuck. She’s full of fear when she leaves her town.

“We are afraid because we don’t have legal status here. We are afraid when we go out on the street,” Renteria said.

The town’s mayor admitted more improvement in border security needs to be made. Reyes said no plans are in place to remove El Cenizo’s safe haven ordinance anytime in the future. 

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