Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from city Rep. Alexsandra Annello and information about President Joe Biden’s new executive order.
After four hours of passionate public testimony, the El Paso City Council on Tuesday voted against a proposal that would have explored deprioritizing police investigations of abortions, which will soon be a crime in Texas.
Mayor Oscar Leeser broke the tie among city representatives, casting the deciding vote against the proposal.
As soon as the 5-4 vote went up, the packed room – filled with both abortion proponents and opponents – erupted with chants of “shame!” “shame!” from those who’d supported the proposal.
City Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Henry Rivera had proposed the item after the Supreme Court revoked the constitutional right to an abortion – a decision that will soon trigger a state law that will criminalize the procedure in Texas. Reps. Cassandra Hernandez and Peter Svarzbein voted in favor of the proposal.
Reps. Joe Molinar, Isabel Salcido, Claudia Rodriguez and Cissy Lizarraga voted against it.
The measure would have directed El Paso’s city manager and city attorney to draft a policy barring the city from funding efforts to criminalize people seeking an abortion, or from collecting information about reported abortions.
More than 80 people testified for and against the proposal.
Speaking by phone, Adriana Montoya implored the representatives to “serve as our last line of defense” and vote in favor of the measure. “If you would like to be in favor of life, I urge you to protect the people who are seeking (abortion) care.”
Mark Cavaliere, the executive director of the anti-abortion group Southwest Coalition for Life, asked council to replace the proposed measure “with a policy that is truly pro-woman, so that no woman ever feels that she has no choice but to destroy her body to be successful.”
Police investigations of abortion
The proposal would also have asked El Paso police to make investigating abortion their lowest priority, with certain exceptions in cases of coercion.
When asked by Rep. Cissy Lizarraga if he had been consulted on the proposal, El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said, to cheers, “Investigating abortions at the lowest level? No, I’m not for that in any form or fashion right now.”
City police divide calls into four-tier priorities, with threats to life “a priority one-type situation that we would respond to and handle immediately and appropriately,” according to another El Paso police official responding to Lizarraga’s questions. (El Paso Matters was not immediately able to confirm the officer’s name.)
Except in cases where a pregnant patient’s life or “major bodily function” is at risk, performing an abortion will become a first-degree felony in Texas; defendants could face up to 99 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines.
Though the law carves out an exception for the person who receives the abortion, they could still get caught up in a police investigation of the alleged offense.
Sgt. Enrique Carillo, a police department spokesperson, later clarified Allen’s statement by email:
“The Chief’s position is to enforce the laws of the state of Texas. If a crime is committed in this city and reported to the El Paso Police Department, the case will be assigned to a detective and an investigation will be conducted. As with all crimes, priority is based on the level of the offense committed.”
Carillo declined to comment on the priority level assigned to first degree felonies.
Questions of legality
After council returned from a recess, Leeser said that he voted against the proposal out of concern that it would be superseded by federal or state law.
“At the end of the day, we are governed by the state of Texas,” Leeser said.
Annello said the mayor had violated the council’s rules of order for talking about the measure after the vote was taken and called his comments “unfactual.”
In a letter submitted as public testimony, El Paso County Attorney JoAnne Bernal said, “nothing in this agenda item attempts to change or act contrary to existing law. … It is totally appropriate to simply urge our law enforcement officers to give enforcement of abortion laws the lowest priority. I support this item because it represents my values. Passage of this item will send a powerful message that El Paso values the rights of women to make reproductive decisions.”
The proposal was modeled off similar measures put forth in Austin and Denton. The Denton City Council recently passed the measure, and the Austin City Council is expected to do so later this month.
The mayor’s tie-breaking vote provoked immediate backlash. Later Tuesday, retired University of Texas at El Paso political science Professor Kathleen Staudt resigned as Leeser’s appointee to the City Plan Commission. She had signed up to speak in support of deprioritizing enforcement of state abortion laws, but had to leave before her name was called.
“I cannot in good conscience serve as the mayor´s appointee on the City Plan Commission. Why? You broke the tie to support what I view as the medieval majority of attendees and council reps who do not understand the separation of church and state on Agenda Item 3 today,” Staudt said in an email to Leeser, which she shared with El Paso Matters.
In a statement released Wednesday, Annello said she would keep pushing to create local protections for abortion seekers. She said she would try to allocate funding for those traveling out of state for abortion services and work with the city’s newly-formed Women’s Commission to ensure that residents can access accurate information about abortion resources.
Annello also said she’d ask El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales to join at least five other Texas DAs who have said they will not prosecute people who have or provide abortions. The El Paso DA’s office has not responded to media questions about Rosales’ stance on the issue.
On Friday, President Joe Biden issued an executive order designed to expand access to information about legal abortion options throughout the country. It also directed the Attorney General and White House Counsel to coordinate a pro-bono legal initiative that would defend people prosecuted for providing or seeking out of state abortions.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that city Rep. Alexsandra Annello said Mayor Oscar Leeser violated the City Charter by speaking on the abortion enforcement proposal after the vote was taken. She said he had violated the council’s rules of order.