Houston, the most diverse city in the nation, is a city of immigrants. In Houston, one in every four residents is foreign-born, nearly half of Houstonians speak one of 140 non-English languages at home, and more refugees are resettled than in any other city in the US. Harris County is home to more than 1.6 million immigrants who have a right to health, prosperity, stability, and due process in court. These rights are threatened by immigration enforcement, detention, and deportation.

While we are hopeful that the Biden administration will undo some of the harmful policies of the last four years, we must remember that unjust immigration laws and high-dollar budgets for enforcement authorities mean that Houston area immigrants will remain under threat from detention and deportation. As we have seen, even under Democratic administrations, large numbers of Houstonians were deported.

Each year, thousands of Houston and Harris County residents — parents, siblings, employers, workers, and students — face immigration detention and the possibility of deportation. There is no right to free legal counsel in the immigration court system, as there is in the criminal legal system, and most people face an immigration judge without an attorney. High quality legal representation has the biggest impact on whether an immigration judge grants an individual the right to legally remain in the United States.   Harris County residents facing deportation and without legal counsel confront the possibility of long-term and, in some cases, permanent separation from their communities.

To the right: Houston Detention and Deportation Numbers

Increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, policies, and enforcement under the Trump Administration, have been well documented, but these strategies are not new, nor will they end under a new administration. Racist strategies that keep people from crossing US borders, create barriers to lawful status for low-income immigrants, and remove families from the country  have been used throughout the United States’ history  to  reduce the number of Black and Brown immigrants in the country.

Although immigration policy is federal, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) works closely with local law enforcement to remove individuals living and working in the United States. Texas has passed anti-immigrant legislation, namely Senate Bill 4 (SB4), aimed at strengthening such collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE. City  and county  governments have the authority and the moral obligation to take action to keep immigrant communities safe.

ICE collaboration with police and sheriff departments increases the likelihood that people will end up in an immigration detention after an arrest. Racial profiling and systemic racism in the criminal legal system lead to Black and Brown people being arrested – then detained and deported – at higher rates. ICE has office space and access to records in the Houston/Harris County Joint Processing Center (JPC), so it can effectively interrogate anyone they suspect may be deportable, regardless of the status of their criminal case. In fact, 25 percent of people who were transferred to ICE after a local law enforcement arrest had no conviction. Undocumented immigrants, immigrants with temporary status, and even lawful permanent residents are deportable if convicted of  certain – even minor – crimes. 

Once someone is transferred to detention, they remain in ICE custody until they are released on bond, win their case and can stay in the US, or are deported, processes which can take months or even years. People in detention centers suffer medical neglect, isolation, and physical and sexual abuse. In the past few years, there have been multiple allegations of rape in Houston area facilities yet there are no consequences for the perpetrators.

Without the right to counsel, people facing the almost insurmountable challenge that is the US immigration system can languish in detention for months or years, and can be deported even when they have viable legal claims to remain in the US. Nearly 70 percent of people detained in Houston area detention centers in FY2018 did not have an attorney at any point in their immigration case.

The consequences of not having an attorney are dire — over 95 percent of people detained in the Houston area were ordered deported in FY2018. People who have an attorney are ten and a half times more likely to win the right to remain in the US than those without counsel. It is fundamentally unjust for anyone living in the US to face a judge without an attorney to help them navigate a complex legal system. 

COVID-19 has placed people in detention at even higher risk. Even with severe under-testing in Houston area immigration detention, at least 405 people have tested positive for COVID19 and 2 people have died. 

The detention and deportation of Houstonians has a dramatic impact on our local economy and on our social fabric, from school enrollment to health to family stability. This burdens Houston and Harris County families, employers, government, and, ultimately, all residents. Immigrants  hold about 32 percent of jobs in the region, earn $50.9 billion in total annual income, and pay $11.7 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. This report estimates that Houston lost approximately $133 million in total spending power in FY 2018 due to deportations.  

Deportations contribute to labor shortages, foreclosed homes, and closed businesses.  Families experience up to a 90 percent decline in their household income when a family member is deported, meaning they can no longer afford basic expenses like rent, food, and transportation. Employers must also re-train employees who cannot return to work – this report estimates that employers in Houston lose $24.8 million in turnover costs per year. 

Other costs that are less quantifiable – such as the costs of foster care when children whose parents are deported must be taken care of by the State, and the increased cost to state health insurance programs when US citizen children turn to public benefits as a result of the deportation of the family’s health insurance policy holder. 

Deportations also create significant health consequences for the people deported, for their families, and for their communities. Family separation due to immigration detention and deportation is traumatic – with particularly devastating impacts on the wellbeing of children, leading to anxiety, PTSD, depression, and even suicide. Children whose parents are deported may be placed in foster care if they have no other care-taker. The looming threat of ICE enforcement can also lead to long-lasting health and educational consequences for children. US citizen and noncitizen adults in communities with increased ICE enforcement show increased risk of anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and, in pregnant women, higher rates of preterm births. Families who experience the deportation of a loved one may lose up to 90 percent of their household income, and access to health insurance. 

All of this has a lifelong impact on health, social mobility, and economic stability. These effects ripple out past the person who is detained, to their families and communities. Multiple generations can be impacted by the trauma of one deportation. 

Unless bold action is taken to address these problems, the socioeconomic impacts outlined in this report are likely to continue in the Houston area. But this is not a task for only the federal government to solve – all levels of government can take steps to mitigate these effects. It is imperative that Houston and Harris County keep residents out of detention and provide them with legal representation.

Harris County and the City of Houston can reduce the negative impacts of deportation on our community and economy by: