AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Around 20 people were charged with criminal trespassing Monday evening after staging an hours-long sit-in at a state building to protest a Texas bill compelling local police to enforce federal immigration law.
The demonstration began in the late morning, when 100-plus protesters — many wearing T-shirts or waving signs and banners denouncing the proposal against "sanctuary cities" — marched to the state Capitol, then to the nearby Department of Insurance building.
They sat in the lobby, vowing to remain until Republican Gov. Greg Abbott rejects the bill, which hasn't yet cleared the Legislature. The governor has an office in the building but wasn't present.
Both the Texas Senate and House have passed strict measures designed to prohibit so-called "sanctuary cities" where local police don't inquire about immigration status when detaining someone — but each chamber's version must now be reconciled before Abbott can sign them into law.
The protesters spent hours rallying and chanting in English and Spanish. Some eventually locked arms to block entrances to the building, preventing some state employees from coming and going.
Police refrained from intervening throughout the day but ordered protesters to leave around 5 p.m., when the building was set to close. Most complied, though about 20 refused.
An arriving judge entered the building to read those remaining their rights collectively, and they were issued trespassing citations. Six attorneys also turned up to assist those inside but were barred by authorities from entering the building — something they argued violated the law.
"The Sixth Amendment says you have the right to an attorney ... the only thing they need to know is that I'm a lawyer," said lawyer George Lobb, who presented the police with a list of clients inside the building. He said of being denied accesses: "It's unconstitutional."
State troopers used plastic zip-ties to handcuff those cited. Once they were outside the building, though, officers cut the restraints off and left the protesters free to go with orders to show for upcoming court dates — some of which have yet to be scheduled. They then staged a raucous rally nearby.
Among those charged was Austin City Council member Greg Garcia, who said he saw some people were placed in metal handcuffs while still inside the building.
"What I think he hasn't realized is that people in this community around the state are going to rise up ... the day he signs the bill," Garcia said of Abbott, adding that the measure actually becoming law "is only the beginning of the real fight."
Pastor Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, is a leading member of Austin's sanctuary network of churches housing immigrants to protect them from deportation. He too was cited for trespassing.
"Please know if you're undocumented that we love you and we want you here in Austin," Rigby told the crowd after leaving the building. "If today means anything to you I hope you know that."