If Houston is a sanctuary city, Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to keep it that way.
Turner announced Thursday morning that he plans to fight Senate Bill 4, more commonly known as Texas’s new “sanctuary cities” law. “I will ask…City Council to consider and vote to join the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of SB4,” Turner said.
It’s unclear yet when exactly the vote will be or how many of the city's 16 council members plan to support it.
Only Councilman Robert Gallegos, who represents heavily Hispanic District I in East Houston, made his position clear. “I stood on [the] Capitol steps on behalf of my constituents weeks ago to denounce #SB4,” Gallegos said on Twitter, adding that the new law was “unconstitutional.”
One other city council member offered what appeared to be more tepid endorsement. Councilman Mike Knox, an at-large member, simply retweeted the mayor’s announcement.
Signed by Governor Greg Abbott in May, SB 4 has spurred local protests and drawn national condemnation. Although other states have passed laws cracking down on undocumented immigrants, SB 4 goes significantly further by also threatening local officials with punishment.
Any official who refuses to help the federal government with deportations will face removal from office and even criminal penalties, according to the new law, which goes into effect in September. That rule applies to law-enforcement officers as well. SB 4 also prevents local agencies or jurisdictions from passing their own policies softening immigration enforcement.
SB 4 passed the Texas House of Representatives in April along strict party lines, which may seem strange. While draconian immigration laws are often associated with, say, Arizona, the Texas Republican Party has historically been warm on immigration. Up until the Trump era, there was remarkable consensus on this issue between urban liberals and pro-business conservatives in Texas.
And sanctuary cities aren’t really a Texas phenomenon. Although the term has no official definition, it’s generally used to refer to jurisdictions that refuse requests to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Only one Texas city — Austin — meets that definition.
Leaders in other Texas cities, including Houston, have attempted to distance themselves from ICE in recent years. But they still honor detainer requests from the federal government — making them not sanctuary cities in the traditional sense of the word.
Houston is the fifth major Texas city to take on SB 4. Officials in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso had previously announced their plans to fight it.
That hesitation on the part of Mayor Turner has drawn rebuke from immigration activists. On Wednesday, an article titled “Houston is not a ‘Welcoming City’” circulated widely on Twitter.
“When you have a mayor that refuses to sue the state of Texas for legalizing racial profiling through SB 4, which expands deportations and family separations, Houston is not a 'Welcoming City,'” the author, who gave his name as Raúl Alcaraz-Ochoa, wrote.