Members of Houston’s legal services community – both non-profit organizations that serve low-income immigrants and members of the private bar – oppose SB4, which was signed by Governor Abbott on Sunday, May 7th and will go into effect on September 1, 2017. Punishing so-called “sanctuary cities” was one of the Governor’s “emergency items” for the 2017 legislative session.
At its core, SB4 will lead to racial profiling and the detention and deportation of long-standing members of our Texas community. Specifically, the bill:

  • Prohibits any local jurisdiction or campus police department (both private and public) from adopting, enforcing or endorsing any policy that “prohibits or materially limits the enforcement of immigration laws.”
  • Requires all local jurisdictions to comply with ICE detainers, despite the fact that detainers have been found by federal court to be unlawful and are acknowledged by the federal government to be voluntary.
  • Creates civil, financial penalties for local jurisdictions or campus police departments who fail to comply with these policies.

It is important to note that immigration law is a federal, civil matter, and is in no way the jurisdiction of local law enforcement or local jurisdictions. As has been argued by many members of local law enforcement agencies and advocates, SB4 will erode trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.

SB4 Will Lead to Increased Detention and Deportation of our Neighbors

The greater Houston region is also home to the third largest population of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. – estimated at 575,000, or nearly one-third of the region’s immigrant population (compared to 28% nationwide). Under President Trump’s expanded immigration enforcement priorities, all of the undocumented members of our community are at risk of detention and deportation. SB4 will only exacerbate this process as local officials are empowered to inquire about immigration status and then refer individuals to ICE for detention and eventual deportation. This will have a dramatic impact on Houston’s local economy – 32% of the labor force and 42% of the self-employed population is foreign-born – and social fabric, from school enrollment to family stability.

SB4 Will Reduce Access to Legal Representation and Due Process

We estimate that local service providers currently serve only 20% of low-income immigrant clients who are eligible for any type of immigration legal services. This number is much lower when it comes to representation for detained immigrants in removal proceedings (deportation).
It is well documented that detention dramatically decreases an individual’s access to legal counsel. Indeed, from 2007-2012, 69% of non-detained respondents in the Houston Immigration Court were represented as opposed to just 13% of detained respondents. Neither is a good figure, but the representation rates for detained individuals is dismal.

Studies have shown that immigrants who are represented are much more likely to win relief than those who go without representation. A 2014 study by the Stanford Law School found that detained immigrants with representation are three times more likely to win their deportation case than those without attorneys. For asylum-seeking women and children, the odds of winning an asylum case increases fourteen-fold with legal representation. Having a good immigration lawyer is the key factor in being able to establish a right to remain in the United States. This has been proven true particularly in the unaccompanied minor context. While the vast majority cases initially filed in the Houston immigration Court in FY2016 are still pending, less than 1% of represented cases resulted in removal, whereas 99% of unrepresented cases resulted in removal.

SB4 Empowers Domestic Abusers and Human Traffickers

It is well-documented that domestic abusers and traffickers routinely manipulate their victims by threatening to have them deported if they call the police. A survivor might therefore face the impossible “choice” of risking separation from her young children and forfeiting custody to her abuser upon deportation, or continuing to endure life threatening violence at home.  Abusers also commonly hold proof of their victims’ lawful immigration status hostage in order to keep them silent.  Citing immigrants’ growing mistrust of police, Houston Police Department cited a 42% reduction in rape reported from Hispanics from January to March 2017 compared to the same period last year.

Regardless of any carve-outs, when local police and federal immigration functions are indistinguishable to immigrants, police become the unwitting accomplices of abusers and traffickers in creating a climate of fear for the most vulnerable among us. Abusers and traffickers are often recidivists and engage in other criminal activity as well.  Law enforcement officers rely on victims and witnesses to provide critical, firsthand information to help solve crimes that afflict all members of our communities.  Knowing this, Congress created protections for victims in the Violence Against Women Act and Trafficking Victims Protection Act to incentivize immigrant cooperation with law enforcement. SB4 directly undermines their intent.  We are all less safe when immigrants are too afraid to come forward, or are swiftly deported and unable to provide eyewitness testimony or access their rights under federal law.

The undersigned stand opposed to SB4 and its chilling effects on due process and public safety.

United We Dream Houston
BakerRipley (formerly Neighborhood Centers)
Texas Organizing Project
Justice for our Neighbors Houston
Bonding Against Adversity
Daya Inc.
Mi Familia Vota
Tahirih Justice Center
Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
Living Hope Wheelchair Association
Migrant Rights Collective
SEIU Texas
Chinese Community Center
Muslim Bar Association of Houston
Mexican American Bar Association
ACLU of Texas
OCA-Greater Houston
Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO

State Representative Gene Wu
Andrea Guttin, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative
Kate Vickery, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative
Geoffrey A. Hoffman, Director UHLC Immigration Clinic
Hania Luna, Tahirih Justice Center
Heidi Tso, Chinese Community Center
Teresa Messer, Law Office of Teresa Messer
Deborah Chen, OCA-Greater Houston

Marisol Valero Torres
Laila Nabi
Erika J. Lindberg
Justine K. Fanarof, JD, MPH
Coty Meibeyer
Joy Green, Esq.
Salma H. Khan
Elizabeth Tran
Dalia Castillo-Granados
AJ Durrani
Kelli King-Jackson
Dr. Nusrat Ameen
Yamilet Aguilar
Kristin Zipple-Shedd, JD/MSW
Kathy Kraiza
Sanjay Bapat
Doug Salisbury
Meha Gargi
Robert H. Etnyre, Jr.
David Rusk
Michael Ballard
Hilary Greene
Jane Langdell Robinson
Neal Sarkar
Cesar G. Leyva
Alisa Lipski
Adam Milasincic
Mark Holden
Rey Flores
Matthew Cummins
Amar Raval
Vanessa Hernandez
Edgar Hernandez
L. Jaimes
Joseph Y. Ahmad
David Martinez
S. Mendez
Jared Tyler
A. Mendez
S. Moreno
Nino Moreno
Murtaza F. Sutarwalla, Esq.
Saad Khan
Sophia Bajwa, Esq.
Jason E. Beesinger
Razwana Fazil
Rehan Alimohammad
Christian Menefee

P&M Law
Law Offices of Midhat Syed

*Individuals are not signing on behalf of their institutions/organization. Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

Houston is the most diverse city in the nation and nearly one in four Houstonians is foreign-born. Houstonians and our elected leaders recognize that our diversity of culture, language, and ethnicities make Houston a better place; yet SB4 – which Governor Abbot signed into law yesterday –  targets our diverse communities and makes us less safe by proposing civil and criminal penalties for cities like Houston that have chosen to prioritize protect our communities instead of enforcing federal immigration law.

Community Safety

SB4 penalizes cities and counties for setting policies that prevent officials from asking about immigration status – this is a mistake. The Houston Police Department has long recognized that policing requires community support and assistance. Houston’s policy generally prohibits officers from asking about immigration status and has been in place for over two decades in recognition of the disastrous impact on police-community trust when police are perceived to be acting as immigration enforcers.

Trust is already beginning to erode as national anti-immigrant rhetoric has spiked deportation fears among immigrant communities, resulting in a sharp decrease in crime reporting.  Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo recently announced that the number of Hispanics reporting crime has sharply decreased compared to the same period last year: rape reporting is down 42.8% and violent crime reporting is down 13%.  Unfettered crime can quickly spread across neighborhoods, not distinguishing immigration status. SB4 will force Houston to change our community-building policies by threatening fines and even the removal of elected officials.

Police rely on victims and witnesses to help solve crimes that afflict all members of our communities.  We are all less safe when immigrants are too afraid to come forward, or are deported and unable to provide eyewitness testimony. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is “concerned that Senate Bill 4 could limit our ability to address a myriad of local safety priorities – such as rape, murder and human trafficking to elder abuse and the challenges of mental health in our criminal justice system.” Houston’s Police Chief agrees that the local enforcement of immigration law diverts limited resources needed to prevent crimes.

Victims of domestic and gender-based violence are likely to feel the impact of this law most severely, as it will be another barrier among the many that immigrant women face in reporting crime. In addition to fearing retribution by violent partners and navigating an unfamiliar system, immigrant victims will worry that they or someone else in their household might be deported as a result of calling the police.

SB4 does not create exceptions to the policy for domestic violence shelters, nor does it exclude universities, pre-kindergarten schools, homeless shelters, and other sensitive locations. The national anti-immigrant sentiment has already led some Houston families to keep their children home from school and to avoid going to the doctor out of fear.

Increased Detention

In addition to the many unintended consequences, SB4 intends to increase the number of individuals transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. When someone is apprehended by ICE, they are held in a detention facility while their case goes before a judge, unless they are eligible for and can pay a bond.

It is well documented that detention makes it more difficult to get legal representation. In the Houston area’s three detention centers, a mere 13% of detained persons were represented compared with two thirds of those not in detention. This year, only 3% of detained cases were granted relief from deportation. This is not because of a lack of relief, but a lack of counsel  – studies have shown that having an attorney makes it three times and up to fourteen times more likely to win a case. Unfortunately, only three of Houston’s 20 non-profit legal services providers have the resources to provide even limited representation to Houston’s three (soon to be four) detention centers.


This law raises numerous constitutional issues and it is likely that lawsuits will soon be filed. After Arizona passed a “show me your papers” law in 2010, a federal judge struck down parts of the law since only Congress has power to create immigration law. Legal experts say this problem exists with SB4, particularly the requirement that local jails comply with immigration “detainer” requests that federal officials have said are voluntary. Further, a federal court recently held that ICE detainers issued without a warrant are unlawful and a pending case in Bexar County, Texas challenges the constitutionality of detainers. There are also concerns the law will lead to racial profiling, as occurred in Arizona – the rampant racial profiling did not stop even after a judicial order forbade it. Other legal experts argue that SB4 broad and vague provisions could violate the First Amendment.

The impact of SB4 may be difficult to separate from the impact that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have already had on Houstonians, though no doubt it will worsen an already dire situation. Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative partners hear from immigrants who are worried about their safety and that of their families every day.

For a more extensive legal opinion as to the constitutionality of SB4, please see this analysis from Professor Geoff Hoffman, University of Houston Law Center.

HILSC and the amazing staff and volunteers who comprise our network have been addressing community concerns through “Know Your Rights” presentations, family preparedness workshops, and an immigrant rights hotline, in addition to their ongoing services: consultations, case assistance, naturalization workshops, deportation defense, and more. However, organizations are already overwhelmed and at capacity. They could use your help in volunteering or donating today.