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Mayor of state's oldest, smallest sanctuary city standing firm

Safe Haven Ordinance adopted in 1999

EL CENIZO, Texas – Once the state’s youngest mayor at 21, Raul Reyes still leads the state’s oldest and smallest sanctuary city that adopted its Safe Haven Ordinance in 1999.

Reyes said it was the same year, when he was still in high school, that the city of El Cenizo, near Laredo, also adopted its predominant language ordinance that led to its City Council meetings being conducted in Spanish. The national exposure that resulted prompted threats, even from the Ku Klux Klan.

Related story: Reporter Debrief: Life in El Cenizo

Reyes said now the city only conducts business in Spanish as needed.

The tiny town with a population of 3,800 is again on the front line. This time it's in the current debate over sanctuary cities and legislation expected to be signed by Governor Greg Abbott.

Reyes said he expects even more backlash.

“I’m used to it,” he said.

Reyes said he often tells critics: “You don’t live here. This is my town. These are my people.”

The town is so small that it doesn’t have a jail. Anyone arrested is sent to the Webb County Jail in Laredo.

But he said even after the anti-sanctuary bill is enacted, his reserve police officers and even city employees still won’t ask for anyone’s immigration status.

“I’m going to stand firm, and if I’m the only mayor in Texas that stands firm against this, so be it,” Reyes said.

Reyes said he will continue to defend many of his citizens.

“It’s the humane thing to do. It’s the American thing to do,” Reyes said.

The mayor was visibly overcome by emotion when he was thinking about the current climate targeting immigrants.

“There’s just so much hate,” he said, his voice breaking. “We know better than this.”

Reyes said he’s gone to school, been to Mass and broken bread with many in his small community.

“Now all of a sudden, we’re going to turn our backs on them just because they don’t have a piece of paper?” Reyes asked.

Joel Martinez, U.S. Border Patrol agent in charge for the Laredo south station, which includes El Cenizo, said the town’s long-standing policy has had no impact on the mission of his agents.

“We still have access to all the areas. We need to get to do our job,” Martinez said.

With the Rio Grande in El Cenizo’s backyard, Border Patrol agents often drive through town to patrol the area.

Martinez said since El Cenizo has only a few reserve officers, his agents often are first responders. Recently, a young woman accidentally fell in the river and was rescued by specially trained agents.

Reyes said the city’s relationship with Border Patrol has vastly improved compared to after the Safe Haven Ordinance was adopted. He said back then, agents would stop people in the street and even on school buses.

“They did before. Right now, they do not,” Reyes said.

Reyes said Texas Rural Legal Aid stepped in and an agreement was reached. He said Border Patrol agents engage in community policing and reach out to the children of El Cenizo.

“Even people who are here, illegal or not, have the confidence to report suspicious or illegal activity,” Reyes said.

Reyes said he still worries about the effect of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Washington and anti-sanctuary city legislation in Austin.

"The mayor has nothing to worry about. We will continue to do our job in a humane and compassionate way," Martinez said.

Reyes said he was the first to graduate in his family with a bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in management, and this December, he expects to get his master’s degree in public administration.

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