Geopolitics

Defying Trump, Texas Sheriff Gives Safe Haven To Immigrants

Austin, Texas may be the first of many 'sanctuary cities' that disobey President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policy.

A Muslim-American at a rally in Austin on Tuesday
A Muslim-American at a rally in Austin on Tuesday
Abigail Hauslohner

AUSTIN -- Last spring, Jim Rigby opened the doors of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church to Hilda Ramirez and her 10-year-old son, undocumented immigrants fleeing civil strife in Guatemala. He borrowed some furniture, set up bunk beds in the Sunday school teacher's office - and trained church members to lock the doors and form a human shield if immigration officers come knocking.

"Do we stand up for human rights now? Or do we act like zebras on the Serengeti, hoping the lion eats us last?" said Rigby, 66, the longtime minister of one of Austin's most liberal houses of worship. "People of good conscience," he said, must put themselves between asylum seekers and "harm's way."

Rigby is part of a growing movement determined to oppose President Trump's policies for cracking down on immigration. While thousands of protesters gather nationwide to decry Trump's temporary travel ban on refugees and on citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations, Rigby and other activists in cities with large immigrant populations are bracing for what they fear will come next: a wave of raids and deportations.

Trump has called for the deportation of as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes on U.S. soil. In one of his first acts as president, Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to look at withholding federal funding from cities that refuse to assist immigration officials, a loose collection of municipalities known as "sanctuary cities."

Three hours from border

Austin has become the first battleground in that conflict, where the governor and a local sheriff are now locked in a standoff over the issue. A liberal enclave in the heart of conservative Texas, the capital city lies a little more than three hours from the Mexican border. About 35% of its 931,000 residents are Hispanic, according to U.S. Census estimates, and the city is home to a vibrant sanctuary movement that sprang to life during President Barack Obama's first term, when his administration carried out a record number of deportations.

In November, voters in Travis County, which includes Austin, elected a new sheriff, who campaigned on a promise not to detain people based solely on their immigration status. Hours after Trump took office, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, a Democrat, posted an eight-minute video on her official website explaining the new policy, which took effect Wednesday.

Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Trump supporter and immigration hardliner, quickly fought back, accusing Hernandez of playing "a dangerous game of political Russian roulette — with the lives of Texans at stake."

This week, Abbott made good on a threat to withhold $1.5 million in state criminal justice grants, money that funds services for veterans, parents struggling with drug addiction and victims of family violence. He also asked state agencies by Friday to prepare a full list of all state funding provided to Travis County, suggesting that additional punishment may be forthcoming.

"Some law enforcement officials in Texas are openly refusing to enforce existing law. That is unacceptable," Abbott said in his annual State of the State address this week. "Elected officials don't get to pick and choose which laws they obey. To protect Texans from deadly danger, we must insist that laws be followed."

Abbott called on lawmakers to act urgently to ban sanctuary cities. A measure drafted by state Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican and Abbott ally, would withhold state funding from cities, counties and colleges that do not comply with immigration detainers. It also would require county jailers to determine and record the immigration status of every arrestee. Supporters and protesters of the legislation crammed into the Texas statehouse Thursday for a hearing of the bill, which, as Perry acknowledged under questioning, does not actually define "sanctuary city."

Last week, Abbott threatened to oust Hernandez, who was elected with 60 percent of the vote. Legislation to permit him to do so has yet to be filed, but a spokesman for Abbott noted that the threat to cut off state funding was sufficient to persuade the Dallas County sheriff to abandon sanctuary policies last year.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott — Photo: Gage Skidmore

Austin, however, is standing firm. Democratic Mayor Steve Adler, and other city officials have vowed to support Hernandez, arguing that most undocumented immigrants do not pose a threat to the community and that deportations have ripped local families apart.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, a Democrat, says she, too, stands behind the sheriff. More aggressive deportation "would absolutely wreck" the state economy, she added, ticking off half a dozen Texas industries - including agriculture, construction and biotech - that rely on immigrant labor.

Besides, she said, Travis County is not alone in ignoring immigration detainers.

"The only difference," Eckhardt said, "is that Sally Hernandez had the guts to write down what she's doing."

Hernandez declined requests for an interview. Under her new policy, Travis County will not comply with requests from immigration authorities to detain people on the sole basis of their immigration status. If DHS finds someone who is undocumented, and that person is charged with murder, sexual assault or human smuggling, Hernandez says she will comply with federal requests to hold the person for 48 hours so they can be taken into custody by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and ultimately deported.

However, if the person is accused of committing a minor infraction and would otherwise be eligible for release from jail, Hernandez says she will not hold them unless ICE obtains a warrant.

Not obliged

Federal courts have repeatedly concluded that local jailers have no legal obligation to comply with ICE detainers. Moreover, courts have said that holding someone without a warrant could violate their constitutional rights, putting jailers at risk of lawsuits.

Hernandez has also argued that enforcing immigration laws undermines trust in her deputies, who depend on the cooperation of people in the community to solve crimes.

"Our jail cannot be perceived as a holding tank for ICE," Hernandez said. "We cannot afford to make our community less safe by driving people into the shadows."

Supporters of the sanctuary city ban say Perry's bill includes protections for witnesses and victims of crimes. Meanwhile, Abbott has said that Hernandez's policy would have led to the release of more than 50 dangerous criminals since she took office, including people accused of sexual assault and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Travis County officials said they are reviewing that claim.

Although Austin is the first sanctuary city to face a loss of funding, Trump's executive order means cities nationwide could soon confront the same harsh choice. Democratic New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to "defend all of our people regardless . . . of their immigration status." And Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, D, has invited people at risk of deportation to seek shelter at City Hall.

This week, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed suit, calling Trump's order on sanctuary cities an infringement of local control that is "not only unconstitutional. It's un-American."

Said Rachel Rosenbloom, a professor of immigration law and policy at Northeastern University: "Cities are definitely emerging as the protectors of immigrants." Since Trump's election in November, she said, "there have been a number of cities that have really doubled down on their support for immigrants."

In Austin, sanctuary activists applaud the new sheriff's stance. But they say that keeping ICE out of the county jail will not be enough to thwart the crackdown. So they're planning mass acts of civil disobedience, soliciting churches to shelter undocumented immigrants, developing neighborhood warning systems so people know to hide when ICE comes through and training volunteers to act as human shields.

"Our plan is to prepare 500 people to do sanctuary in the streets," said Alejandro Caceres, 29, a legal resident from Honduras who leads the ICE Out of Austin campaign for the civil rights group Grassroots Leadership.

Ramirez, a tiny woman with a shy smile, has become something of a poster child for the movement. On a recent weeknight, she and her son, Ivan, appeared at a fundraiser and, through an interpreter, told the story of crossing the U.S. border, being detained by ICE for months and then being filled with fear upon their release from custody while federal officials considered her application for asylum.

That application was eventually denied. But Ramirez received a stay last fall that has temporarily lifted the threat of deportation.

The audience, mostly white and older, applauded Ramirez and then sang along with a visiting folk singer who belted out lyrics about peace and justice while strumming a guitar.

Afterward, Ramirez returned to her makeshift bedroom at St. Andrew's, an unremarkable structure with white walls, a sloping brown roof and a modest steeple on Austin's far north side. A banner outside read: "We stand with our Muslim neighbors."

Rigby, the church minister, acknowledges that sheltering an undocumented immigrant is risky. "When you're aiding someone who is being called a criminal, you're protecting them in your church, you can be charged with violating federal law," he said.

But Rigby insists that Americans have a humanitarian obligation to provide shelter to innocent people fleeing violence and lawlessness - even if it means defying the government in Washington and the Texas statehouse.

"You got a president and a governor who are rattling swords," Rigby said. "Would you protect people being hunted? Well, now we get to find out the answer."

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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