Stop Calling Houston a "Sanctuary City"

On Monday Sen. Charles Perry, a Republican from Lubbock, went before a senate border security subcommittee to promote his bill reviving a measure that, like a zombie, seems to come back from the dead every time the Lege comes to town.

Perry's Senate Bill 185 would ban so-called "sanctuary cities," liberal hubs where, in Perry's mind, local authorities openly thumb their nose at federal immigration law. While there's no legal or even standard definition for what exactly makes a "sanctuary city," Perry's camp continues to advance the idea that Houston is among cities that have "adopted sanctuary city policies."

Whether deliberate or unintended, Perry putting Houston in the "sanctuary cities" camp shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how immigration enforcement currently operates here and how closely local law enforcement actually work with federal immigration authorities.

Should Perry's law pass, it would give any local cop, sheriff's deputy, or any other city or county employee the broad authority to inquire about immigration status. If you're a cop, and you think immigration is a really big deal, under Perry's bill you'd be able to start asking for papers, please. Agencies like the Houston Police Department, which under Chief Charles McClelland operates under a policy that officers are "prohibited from inquiring into a person's citizenship simply to determine if the person is in the country illegally," would be hard pressed to stop you because now you, the individual officer, hold a lot of leverage. You could file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General, which could result in HPD losing its state funding.

Perry says his bill aims to ensure local cops "do not pick and choose the laws they like to enforce." The bill, he insists, springs from "a desire not to undermine federal immigration law."

Okay, sure. And how exactly are local cops undermining immigration law, again?

Proponents of the bill seem to take issue with HPD's current policy that officers in the field are generally instructed not to ask about immigration status nor will they arrest or detain someone based solely on a belief that they're in the country illegally. HPD doesn't call ICE out to intercept every suspected undocumented immigrant they encounter; that would add hours to routine stops, all without an assurance that ICE would even show up every time they're called.

Still, if you're arrested and booked at one of two City of Houston jails, you'd best bet la migra will be notified. Cops will run your prints through a federal database that will alert ICE if you've got a dubious immigration status. At that point, it's ICE's call whether or not to pick you up.

It's important to remember that police officials like McClelland haven't opposed sanctuary cities legislation out of some moral stance against the broken immigration system. Instead, they've come to the practical realization that alienating their increasingly large immigrant communities, undocumented and otherwise, makes it very difficult to do their jobs: solve local crimes.

Take, for example, Harris County Sheriff (and likely mayoral candidate) Adrian Garcia, who testified against Perry's bill on Monday, calling it "a solution that is in search of a problem."Garcia told the senate committee that Perry's bill could rupture the fragile bond that exists between his deputies and the community, increase fears of racial profiling by rogue officers, and take away Garcia's control to operate the department as he sees fit.

"In order to meet our goal of keeping the community safe, I need all people with critical information to be willing to come forward and share it with deputies," Garcia said. "I am concerned that this bill would keep or push people and their information further into the shadows, which harms public safety."

And HCSO certainly isn't opposed to immigration enforcement. As one of the first large agencies to implement the controversial fingerprint-screening program Secure Communities, the office for years faced criticism from immigrant rights groups that it was working too closely with ICE. HCSO has long operated under a 287(g) agreement with the federal government, which effectively deputized some sheriff's officers to assist federal immigration agents (those programs, which started under Garcia's predecessor, continued under his administration). In large part due to these programs, over a two-year period Garcia's jail locked up more undocumented immigrants at the request of federal authorities than any other jail in Texas.

Still, in testifying for Perry's sanctuary cities bill Monday, Brian Hawthorne, sheriff of nearby Chambers County, pointed to a recent murder case to criticize Harris County's way of doing things.

On March 5, the bodies of Jarvis Morgan, 17, and Alejandro Chavez, 18, were found dumped in a bayou in Chambers County. Three suspects were eventually arrested and charged with capital murder, but a fourth suspect, a 20-year-old immigrant named Brandon Flores, is believed to have fled to Mexico, Hawthorne said.

Court records show Flores had been arrested several times in Harris County for criminal mischief and criminal trespass. At the time of the murder, he was out on five years probation after prosecutors agreed to, and a judge approved, deferred adjudication on a burglary charge.

Had Perry's sanctuary cities bill been in place, Hawthorne argued, "we may have two teenage boys who may still be alive and not have grieving mothers." Asked how, exactly, the sanctuary cities law might have changed things, Hawthorne gave a description that largely mirrors the typical booking process at the Harris County jail: "In my county, if you are arrested we question you, we determine what your status is, if you're an illegal immigrant we place a detainer and we turn you over to ICE."

Hawthorne also claimed that had investigators been able to ask about Flores' immigration status, they might have approached the case differently and considered him a flight risk before he absconded to Mexico. Which is somewhat confusing, given that a quick court records search turns up documents clearly showing Flores is a Mexican citizen -- investigators could have found that as easily as we did. At a press conference earlier this month, the victims' families, flanked by Quannel X and Equusearch founder Tim Miller, criticized police claiming investigators dragged their feet and failed to take the case seriously until bodies turned up in a bayou. (We've asked Hawthorne to elaborate on his testimony; we'll update if we hear back.)

If Flores was screened at the Harris County jail -- which he almost certainly was -- and wasn't picked up by ICE before his release, that might speak more to the nebulous nature of ICE's shifting priorities than any lack of zeal on HCSO's part.

It's primarily changes at the federal level that have led to changes in who ICE picks up from the jail, says sheriff's office spokesman Alan Bernstein. Back in 2010, it wasn't unusual for ICE to pull 1,000 inmates from the jail every month. In 2011, after ICE issued new priorities on who to deport and who to leave alone, transfers to ICE out of the jail dropped to about 300 per month, Bernstein says.

Then, last November, as part of his executive immigration action, President Obama announced he was ending the controversial Secure Communities program, renaming it the "Priority Enforcement Program." Instead of immigration holds being put on inmates that have been flagged by ICE, Bernstein says jail has been forced to switch to a "notification" program: "We tell ICE, 'If you want this guy, he's getting out on Friday. If you want to come pick him up, you can pick him up from us. If not, we have to let him out.' ...The onus is entirely on ICE."

Bernstein estimates inmate transfers to ICE, which drops by the jail every weekday, are either at or will soon drop to about 100 a month.

All of this serves to underscore a central point that law enforcement officials critical of Perry's sanctuary cities bill, like El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, tried to make at Monday's hearing: that if Republican lawmakers are unhappy with how immigration enforcement is being handled, they should take it up with the feds, not saddle local departments with more responsibility.

"I think trying to take on the federal government's responsibility is ill advised," Wise said.

The bill was left pending in committee after Monday's hearing.

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas