These Students Fought SB4 — And Now They’re Getting Ready For What Comes Next

Regardless of whether the law goes into effect, these activists want everyone to know their rights

SB4 has not been kind to Samuel Cervantes's sleep schedule. The Texas state senate first passed the sanctuary city ban in February, shortly after Cervantes dove headfirst into immigration activism following the unexpected denouement of the 2016 election. The law — which would allow law enforcement to ask anyone about their immigration status at a traffic stop or during any other police interaction, and penalize any elected official or higher-up who might try to stop them — could have an intense effect on schools and universities. That reality sent Cervantes, a DREAMer and senior at the University of Texas at Austin, ping-ponging between his classes and protests at the state capitol for months.

Maria Gonzalez-Trevino, who wants to be an immigration lawyer, was at church when SB4 passed. When she began crying, her family immediately knew why. She thinks she's been to at least 10 protests since the election, and has spent the past few months shuttling herself and other University of Houston students up to Austin. Gonzalez-Trevino, a senior and an honors student, struggled to find enough time in the day to do her classwork along with trying to fight SB4. "I honestly had moments where I wanted to quit, even school itself," she told MTV News. "And then a few hours later, I'd be like, No, Maria, you've got this. You've come this far. But it's not easy."

At Paredes Middle School in Austin, Nancy Cox's students were also thinking about the immigration bill. The nonprofit Generation Citizen set up shop in the U.S. history teacher's classroom, offering students a crash course in civics by letting them pick an issue and showing how they could get involved locally, despite not being old enough to cast a ballot. The students chose SB4, and spent months organizing phone banks and reaching out on social media to stop the bill from passing.

SB4 passed anyway, and was signed by Governor Greg Abbott in May. The policy battle has now relocated to the courts, as the ACLU and many cities across the state have sued Texas to block the law. It is unclear if a potential preliminary injunction could stop SB4 before it goes into effect on September 1, right at the beginning of the new school year. The many young activists who filled the rotunda at the state capitol with echoing chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, SB4 has got to go!” are now focusing on trying to answer the most important question left behind in the legislation's wake: How do we make sure the rest of us feel safe?

The effect would be devastating to anyone's ability to continue to go to class, to continue to engage in what students need to engage in.

Of course, plenty of undocumented families held concerns about their immigration status well before SB4 was introduced. They’ve been afraid of deportation since November, and will continue to be afraid regardless of whether the law is blocked by the courts. Montserrat Garibay of Education Austin, a teacher's union that protested SB4 at the state capitol, told MTV News that they "received calls from teachers" on the day after the election saying that their students were "overwhelmingly asking" questions like, "We heard Trump won, what's going to happen to my mom? My mom says we need to go back." Rumors of raids are rampant — an inevitable side effect when the Trump administration cloaks inaction in hyperbole and scattershot anecdotes of immigrants detained for a traffic violation or minor offense have gone viral.

Elementary and high schools are exempted from the directives laid out in SB4 — the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last week, protects access to free education for all students, regardless of immigration status. But although safe in schools, younger undocumented students or citizens with undocumented parents could still be affected by SB4. Many parents have already stopped driving their kids to school for fear of being stopped. And nothing would prevent police officers from targeting teenagers as soon as they leave school. "If you're a high school student," Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told MTV News, "you won't know in advance if a police officer who decides you're jaywalking will ask questions about immigration or not."

Juan Belman, who first got into activism after his father was detained for a traffic violation, has been working with Education Austin, too. Belman, who just graduated from UT Texas in May — and once made the news for heckling President Obama enough to win a short meeting — helps facilitate the organization’s “Know Your Rights” sessions at summer school, during which parents are told to make sure their kids know: Don't open the front door, come get me instead. Don't let law enforcement in if they don't have a warrant. Here's who you need to call if I don't come home.

Higher education, however, is not exempted from SB4’s directives — which means that law enforcement could have the power to go on campus and ask students about their immigration status. "The effect would be devastating to anyone's ability to continue to go to class, to continue to engage in what students need to engage in," Saenz says.

The wording of the law is vague enough to allow those affected to imagine worst-case scenarios for what enforcement might look like. Undocumented students off-campus worry that they could be stopped by police on the way to class for something as innocuous as a broken taillight, asked about their immigration status, and end up deported. Many also worry that undocumented students might stop reporting crimes on campus, afraid they might be racially profiled while merely telling the authorities that they witnessed a crime. It's not an unfounded concern; as one Houston police officer recently told NPR, the "chilling effect" has already begun: "People are afraid to talk to the police, and how does that help us as police do our job?" Fear of deportation, prompted by the Trump administration, has already settled over Texas like foreshadowing fog. Gonzalez-Trevino, who also serves as president of the Youth Empowerment Alliance, a student group for the undocumented and their allies at the University of Houston, says that attendance at meetings had already dropped sharply before SB4 was even introduced.

Josue Romero, a DREAMer who came to the U.S. when he was 7, already has firsthand experience in what happens when a student is detained. He was briefly held in February at a detention facility in Bexar County after being charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. Romero, currently a sophomore at the Southwest School of Art, has become more active in rallies and marches, while continuing to figure out how to process what happened through his art. He’s also been waiting four months for news on his DACA renewal application, without which he can't apply for a new driver's license or job.

"My dad's whole reason for being here was for my sake," he says. "Having this happen shattered everything we've been living for for the past 14 years." His father is already thinking about going back to Honduras if SB4 goes into effect, leaving Romero alone in the U.S. "Driving wouldn't be viable," Romero says. "He's bound to get stopped eventually, just for being a person of Honduran descent."

Cox's students, who go to a school where "if they're not undocumented, they know someone who is," were devastated after SB4 passed. The semester after the election served as a useful lesson that movements are rarely victorious after launching a single volley, and that one loss doesn't necessarily constitute a failure, but a part in a much longer battle. As the seventh- and eighth-graders trudged through the highlights of America's past in class, similarities to the present day appeared, hidden in Indivisible ink. A quick gaze at the headlines would prompt questions like, "Isn't that a violation of the First Amendment?" and complaints about protests would make them ask why no one remembers that our country itself was founded on a spark of protesting.

While these students are learning about how we got here, other young activists are educating everyone else on what comes next. Gonzalez-Trevino is trying to make sure that the many undocumented students afraid to go public have the information they need to stay safe. Know Your Rights sessions will be held in the first week of classes this fall if SB4 goes into effect; Cox made sure to put information about the sessions at the corner of her chalkboard before the end of the year. The University Leadership Initiative at UT Texas, meanwhile, is trying to work closely with the student government to make sure that information is available online.

Romero is still optimistic that the law will stumble, wondering, "How do you defend that in court?" That question, like all the other questions about immigration in the Trump years, has yet to be completely answered.

Latest News