One day after a Texas law made performing abortions a crime punishable with up to life in prison, El Paso organizers staged a sit-in at District Attorney Yvonne Rosales’s office on Friday, demanding that she make prosecuting abortion cases her lowest priority.
Six young activists stood between chairs in the office’s waiting room holding signs that read “Abortion is a personal decision” and “We just want to talk.”
The sit-in follows more than a week of silence from Rosales after local activists hand-delivered an open letter to her office on Aug. 17, and asked for a meeting to discuss their demands. The letter was signed by about 15 community groups and 65 individuals — among them, health care workers and El Paso politicians at the city, county and state levels.
No district attorney staff, including Rosales, came out to talk with the group, said Ivonne Diaz, who has led the open letter campaign and is a regional coordinator with the youth political empowerment group Texas Rising. The small group arrived a little after 9 a.m. and limited the number of sit-in attendees to avoid interfering with the office’s operations; in seven hours, the only people to approach them were building security, Diaz noted.
Diaz said she and other activists would return for another sit-in on Monday in the hope of getting an answer from the DA, or an appointment to discuss the issue.
“You have the power and discretion to decide how to move forward with certain cases; this is evidenced by your past decisions not to fully pursue a number of cases in El Paso,” the open letter reads.
Prosecutors always have held discretion to choose what cases to pursue, and how to charge those cases. In recent years, some district and state attorneys have said they would not prosecute low-level drug offenses, smaller retail theft and sex work, among other types of crimes.
Prosecutors made similar pledges on June 24, when the Supreme Court issued its historic decision to revoke the constitutional right to an abortion. In a joint statement issued by the group Fair and Just Prosecution, about 90 prosecutors — including five Texas DAs — promised they would not pursue criminal charges in abortion-related cases. As its second demand, the open letter asks Rosales to sign onto this joint statement.
“We hope you will uphold your oath by protecting our community from such traumatizing and unnecessary prosecutions,” the open letter to Rosales reads. “We know that many El Pasoans may face heightened threats of violence from partners should they keep the pregnancy to term, and furthermore, will face one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world.”
America Sanchez, a leader of Texas Rising’s El Paso Community College chapter, attended Friday’s sit-in. Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, she said she wasn’t really paying attention to politics.
Texas’s abortion ban spurred her to political action. “I feel like I’m doing something, finally. For the first time in my life,” she said of her participation in the sit-in.
Sanchez, 21, said she’s known since she was 12 years old that she does not want children. She noted that birth control doesn’t always work, and that she has asked multiple doctors for more permanent pregnancy prevention options such as getting her tubes tied. They’ve all declined to do the procedure, she said, telling her that she was too young and that she’d change her mind one day.
“What if one day I get pregnant because different contraceptive methods don’t work? What’s going to happen if I wanted to get an abortion and I don’t have the right?,” Sanchez said. “It could have been prevented, but they’re not giving me the tools to prevent it.”
Abortion as a criminal justice issue
By overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the two landmark rulings that established federal protections for abortion, the Supreme Court left abortion rights up to states.
In Texas the ruling prompted a return to unrevoked 19th-century laws that made it a crime to perform an abortion or help someone obtain an abortion in Texas.
Last year, the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature also passed a so-called trigger ban that makes performing an abortion a first-degree felony, with exceptions only if the life or “major bodily function” of a pregnant patient is at risk. It does not carve out exemptions for rape or incest. The ban took effect Thursday.
Lawmakers in some Texas cities have attempted to lessen the impact of these restrictions by decriminalizing abortion in their areas. Austin, Dallas and Denton’s city councils passed measures that directed local police to give enforcement of abortion laws their lowest priority. On July 5, El Paso city council narrowly voted down the same measure.
At the July city council meeting, El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen said he was not in favor of de-prioritizing police abortion investigations — making it all the more important for El Pasoans to hear the district attorney’s stance on the issue, said Diaz of Texas Rising.
“(Rosales is) a public servant. We need answers from her,” Diaz said.
Rosales won the Democratic primary for the elected DA position and faced no Republican challenger in the November 2020 general election.
The sit-in marks Diaz’ fifth attempt — by phone, email, and in person — to discuss abortion prosecutions with Rosales since the Supreme Court’s ruling, she said.
The DA has not responded to multiple El Paso Matters requests since the ruling about Rosales’ stance on the issue.
City Rep. Alexsandra Annello, who co-sponsored the defeated city council measure, said in a July press statement that she would take other steps to protect abortion seekers in El Paso, including working with the DA. Annello was one of 80 signatories to the open letter.
Though the measure failed at the city level, the El Paso County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a “Support Abortion Seekers” resolution on Aug. 8. The resolution urged the “El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office to exercise their lawful discretion to not initiate targeted investigations and prosecutions into the crime of abortion.”
The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office jurisdiction spans beyond El Paso, to include Culberson and Hudspeth counties.