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Texas lawmaker on four-day hunger strike in protest of ‘sanctuary city’ bill

By Samantha Schmidt

April 25, 2017 at 6:36 AM

Texas state Rep. Victoria Neave is fasting through Wednesday in protest of a “sanctuary city” bill. (Courtesy of Victoria Neave)

On Sunday, Texas state Rep. Victoria Neave attended Mass at Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Dallas, asked the priest for a blessing and received Holy Communion.

She hasn't eaten anything since.

Neave, a Democrat, is fasting for four days in protest of a "sanctuary city" bill that the Texas House is scheduled to debate on Wednesday. The bill would ban cities, counties and universities from preventing local law enforcement agencies from asking about a person's immigration status or enforcing immigration law.

The Texas Senate has approved the legislation, and those against the bill are outnumbered in the House, Neave said. After years of attempts, Texas Republicans are closer than ever to passing such a bill, which they say would create consistency among law enforcement agencies and would prevent jailed undocumented immigrants from being released.

But many Democrats and immigrant rights advocates fear the measure would lead to racial profiling, incite fear and create a chilling effect in immigrant communities. And for Neave, a rookie lawmaker who represents parts of Dallas, Mesquite and Garland, the bill is personal. Her father, now a United States citizen, initially entered the country illegally.

"I feel like this is an attack on my dad and millions of other families across our state," she said in an interview Monday with The Washington Post. With the House debate only days away, Neave said she is "praying for a miracle."

"What else can I do to defeat this bill?" she said. "The last alternative I thought I could turn to was prayer."

President Trump signed an executive order in January declaring that sanctuary jurisdictions would not be eligible to receive federal grants, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed last month during a White House news conference to take Justice Department money from such places. On Friday, he demanded that nine jurisdictions produce proof that they are communicating with federal authorities about undocumented immigrants. If not, they risk losing grant funding, he said.

Neave said she has noticed heightened anxiety in immigrant communities stemming from steps taken at the national level to ramp up deportations and punish "sanctuary cities," Neave said.

Related: [How sanctuary cities work, and how Trump’s executive order might affect them]

Her fast, she said,was inspired by the hunger strikes of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. Dozens of Texans are joining her with prayer or fasting, hoping to "soften the hearts" of state lawmakers planning on voting for the bill, she said.

On the Facebook page for the fast, organizers write: "This bill will undermine community policing efforts and will affect our neighbors, our workforce, kids in our schools, and the relationship between police and our communities. This doesn't just affect the immigrant community, it impacts everyone who will need to prove he or she is a citizen."

More than 1,200 immigrant families recently packed into a recent informational session held locally, Neave said. And teachers have come to her office and shared that their elementary school students are afraid about "what's going to happen if they're parents are deported."

"I could see the fear in their eyes," Neave said.

Earlier this month, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said his department found the number of Hispanics reporting rape is down 42.8 percent from last year, and those reporting other violent crimes has registered a 13 percent drop.

Because of fears of deportation, Neave said, "people are not going to want to report a crime if they are a victim of a crime."

"This is going to make our communities less safe, not more safe," Neave said.

In a separate demonstration, as many as 750 immigrant detainees in Tacoma, Wash., launched a hunger strike earlier this month to protest conditions at the 1,500-bed Northwest Detention Center.

This is not the first time Neave has fasted in protest — she led hunger strikes while attending law school about a decade ago. For her, this hunger strike is a spiritual matter, a way of "trying to give everything I can, everything of myself."

"It's a form of personal sacrifice," she said.

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Samantha Schmidt is a reporter for The Washington Post's Morning Mix team. She previously worked as a reporting fellow for the New York Times.

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