The Texas attorney general’s office is investigating the San Antonio police response to a smuggling incident last month that resulted in 12 undocumented immigrants being released.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Police Chief William McManus, City Attorney Andy Segovia and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Assistant Attorney General Cleve Doty warned the city to “preserve all relevant materials” related to the incident.
“Several citizens have filed complaints with the Texas attorney general’s office regarding an incident on Dec. 23 involving the release of numerous suspected illegal aliens,” Doty wrote. “The Texas attorney general’s office will investigate these complaints, and the procedure in Senate Bill 4 (indicates) litigation.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also asked the attorney general to investigate the incident.
“I am very troubled by the recent news reports of the San Antonio police chief releasing suspected illegal immigrants in a case of human trafficking or human smuggling without proper investigation, identification of witnesses, or cooperation with federal authorities,” Patrick, who pushed for SB 4 in last year’s legislative session, said in a letter to the AG Wednesday night. “Such action could be in direct violation of the recently passed Senate Bill 4 and threatens the safety of citizens and law enforcement.”
Under SB 4, parts of which have been blocked by courts, local officials can face fines for restricting the enforcement of immigration law by local police. Several provisions have been left in place, including one that punishes local officials who won’t let police ask about immigration status.
McManus didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Nirenberg said, “This is more frivolous political theater from Austin, where some would rather punish cities than fund schools.”
Police found 12 immigrants who apparently had been smuggled to San Antonio in a tractor-trailer Dec. 23 on the East Side. Rather than turn the immigrants over to federal immigration authorities, McManus decided to charge the truck’s driver under a state smuggling law. Police interviewed the 12 immigrants as witnesses and released them.
In a similar incident in July that left 10 people dead in a sweltering semitrailer, San Antonio police turned over the surviving immigrants to federal authorities.
McManus has taken heat from council members and the union representing police officials over the December incident. Councilman Greg Brockhouse sent a letter Wednesday to the U.S. attorney’s office asking it to investigate a possible “lapse in protocol.”
McManus has said police didn’t have the authority to hold the immigrants because they weren’t being charged criminally, which immigration attorneys have said is accurate.
However, he’s still faced questions about why he used the state charges and why the immigrants weren’t turned over to U.S. immigration and Customs Enforcement.
McManus has responded that ICE was notified and agents weren’t prevented from interviewing the immigrants or detaining them.
San Antonio is one of several cities and counties challenging SB 4, which is under appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
Lawyers involved in the city’s case have said it doesn’t appear he violated the law because it only prohibits blanket policies that interfere with immigration enforcement, and McManus has been careful to say he’ll make decisions about when to arrest smugglers under state law and when to refer them to federal authorities on a case-by-case basis.
“This call was situational, based on a fairly fluid situation on the scene,” he told reporters last week. “So this is not necessarily the way every case is going to be handled going forward.”
Austin Bureau Chief Peggy Fikac contributed to this report.