Texas AG alleges San Antonio mayor told staff to not contact ICE, flouting SB 4 law

Accusations against San Antonio mayor included in amended petition in ongoing sanctuary cities lawsuit

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg for the first time has been implicated by the Texas Attorney General in an ongoing “sanctuary cities” lawsuit that accuses the city of flouting a state law that requires local governments to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

According to a petition filed by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, Nirenberg instructed city staff not to contact federal authorities after 12 people believed to be immigrants without documentation were found inside a tractor-trailer in December 2017.

The accusations state that high-ranking city officials were told “the Mayor does not want ICE called,” and that Nirenberg later described their release without being handed over to federal immigration officials as a “Christmas gift” for their families. The claims were made in an amended petition filed late last year and the city attorney has denied them.

The group, which included at least one minor, was taken to San Antonio Police Department headquarters after being found inside the trailer on the East Side and later released without being taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

Paxton has repeatedly said SAPD Chief William McManus’ decision to release the suspected immigrants was a violation of Senate Bill 4, a controversial law passed months before the incident that requires law enforcement agencies in Texas to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Days after the release of the suspected immigrants became public, Nirenberg called criticism of McManus’ handling of the case “nothing more than political theater based on a fictitious narrative.

Nirenberg declined to comment on the court filing and his spokesperson referred inquiries about it to the city attorney’s office.

City Attorney Andy Segovia said the allegations in the filing are without factual basis and in some cases were taken out of context.

Lawsuit enters its 27th month

The lawsuit against McManus and other city officials was filed by Paxton in late November 2018 in Travis County District Court and seeks a significant amount of civil penalties as well attempts to prohibit SAPD from enforcing portions of its general manual related to immigration, according to court records.

Although the city scored a victory in court in June 2019 in getting portions of the lawsuit dismissed, the suit continues nearly 27 months after it was first filed.

Segovia, during an interview with the Defenders in the spring of 2019, said he believed it would take between a year and 18 months to resolve the legal dispute.

City officials declined to make Segovia available for an interview this month and said the timeline he gave during the previous interview was a “very rough estimate.”

Records show the city was billed more than a quarter-million dollars in the first several months after the suit was filed by an Austin-based law firm assisting with the litigation.

City officials have so far not responded to a follow-up request for copies of invoices from that firm or any others helping with the case.

Segovia, through a city spokesperson, released the following statement earlier this month:

“AG Paxton’s Second Amended Petition contains allegations without any factual basis and statements taken out of context. This case is about SB4. Essentially, SB4 prohibits a policy, pattern, or practice of interfering with enforcement of immigration law, and does not allow orders to police officers not to comply with federal immigration officers’ reasonable requests for assistance or cooperation. The City of San Antonio’s actions complied with SB4. An HSI agent was at the scene and at police headquarters on the day of the smuggling incident. The HSI agent left police headquarters without taking anyone into custody. The City allowed the immigrants to leave police headquarters after they were questioned because the City had no authority to hold them. The immigrants were not released to RAICES. The City has worked, and continues to work, in cooperation with federal authorities. Despite AG Paxton’s claims, no federal law enforcement authorities have complained about the City and its handling of the smuggling incident at issue. The City Attorney projected 18 months in the preliminary stages of the case and did note that timing could likely change depending on how the case progressed. The timing has been impacted by motions, amended pleadings, trial court rulings, and challenges brought on by the pandemic.”

City Attorney Andy Segovia

Segovia’s comment on complaints regarding the Dec. 2017 smuggling incident appears to be contradicted, however, by federal records in the case.

A four-page report, written by a Homeland Security Investigations agent and later released in the summer of 2018, prior to the lawsuit being filed, claims that the agent’s repeated attempts to have the suspected undocumented immigrants turned over to federal immigration authorities were denied.

The report also states that the agent’s offer to help interview the suspected immigrants was ignored, even though he is fluent in Spanish.

McManus previously said the agent with Homeland Security Investigation had “every opportunity to do what he needed to do at the scene and at Public Safety Headquarters.”

Semitrailer driver Herbert Nichols. (KSAT)

The driver of the tractor-trailer, Herbert Nichols, was taken into custody at the scene and charged under a seldom-used state smuggling of persons statute.

Nichols was given probation in the case in May 2019, according to court records.

Nirenberg’s alleged role in trailer incident

Nirenberg, a former city councilmember who was elected mayor about six months before the trailer incident, was not named in the original lawsuit filing.

In the amended petition, however, Nirenberg is accused of having a prominent role in the behind-the-scenes decision making that resulted in the suspected immigrants being released without being taken into federal custody.

“Despite Senate Bill 4 or federal law, however, McManus and City leaders, including Mayor Nirenberg, deliberately ensured this time that federal authorities were prevented from taking custody of anyone at the incident,” the suit states.

“Soon after, the City Manager (then-city manager Sheryl Sculley) personally told SAPD Chief William McManus and then advised Deputy City Manager Walsh that ‘the Mayor does not want ICE called,’ the suit states.

“Mayor Nirenberg spoke with Chief McManus and then assured his political staffers that McManus’s ‘explicit instruction is that no one should be remanded to DHS (Department of Homeland Security),’ the suit states.

The filing also claims that Nirenberg stated he had personally contacted immigration-defense groups to send them to the scene after learning about the unfolding incident.

The suit, which claims investigators are in possession of text message records, states that Nirenberg at one point texted, “Just spoke to Sheryl [Sculley, City Manager]. I reaffirmed that our commitment was to work with the legal advocates first before ICE.”

Nirenberg, who is not listed as a co-defendant in the suit, is mentioned in the amended petition more than 30 times, records show.

“Nirenberg then thanked his political staffer for giving ‘families a Christmas gift that can never be replaced’ by keeping them out of ICE custody,” the suit states.

About the Author:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined the KSAT 12 Defenders in 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat. He provides restaurant health reports for KSAT's "Behind the Kitchen Door." Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.