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.

Constitutionality

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.

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