Bayou City

Houston City Council Votes to Join Lawsuit Against SB 4

The Texas Organizing Project at a May Day rally against SB 4 at City Hall.
The Texas Organizing Project at a May Day rally against SB 4 at City Hall. Meagan Flynn
In a major victory for Houston's immigrant community, Houston City Council voted Wednesday to join the lawsuit against SB 4, the "show-me-your-papers" law that critics say will increase racial profiling and unfairly target Hispanic people.

With City Council's 10-to-6 vote — including a yes from Mayor Sylvester Turner — Houston joins Dallas, Austin and San Antonio in the legal attack against the state leadership.The suit was originally filed in May by the border town El Cenizo and Maverick County, with the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU of Texas and El Paso County hopping on board soon after. They accuse the Texas Legislature of passing an unconstitutional, unnecessary law with racist intent, in violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Arguably the most controversial piece of legislation this session, SB 4 will allow police officers to question people's immigration status while detaining them for any purpose. It requires all sheriffs and police chiefs to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by placing immigration holds on people suspected of being undocumented. And should any law enforcement leaders create a policy even suggesting that officers can't grill people about their papers or one that limits ICE cooperation, they can be removed from office and charged with a crime.

"It's extremely important for the immigrant community to see the city back them up," said Frances Valdez, an attorney and activist with United We Dream. "This is a good start — it's not the end, but the symbolism of this is important, as well as the actual lawsuit — because we cannot let SB 4 go into effect on September 1."

Immigrant rights groups have been urging city officials to take a stand against SB 4 for months, and on Tuesday, dozens of immigrants and allies packed City Hall to make a final plea to take legal action. That hearing got testy after State Representative Gene Wu (D-Houston) called SB 4 evil and said the rhetoric coming from supporters of the bill has been racist, as the Houston Chronicle reported. Councilman Greg Travis, one of six council members who voted against joining the lawsuit, responded: "To sit here and call people evil and hateful for wanting to enforce laws that are already on the books — change the laws if you don't like them. But that's not done here. That's done over in Congress,."

Wu was one of 14 Houston-area state lawmakers who signed a letter urging Houston to join the suit against SB 4 ahead of Tuesday's hearing.

While Mayor Turner has often shied away from directly discussing SB 4 until making his opposition clear this week, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo made waves across the state last month when he lambasted SB 4 during a heated press conference. The chief said it stripped him of the authority to tell his officers to focus on more important things — like robberies and home invasions — rather than on asking "day laborers at Home Depot" to see their papers. He argued it would make Houston less safe, since undocumented immigrants, perhaps fearing police, would not be reporting crimes. And contrary to popular belief — a belief Councilman Travis apparently subscribes to — Acevedo pointed out that nothing in the law requires or even suggests that local police should be enforcing immigration law, which is a federal responsibility. (Holding suspected undocumented immigrants on ICE detainers in local jails is also not a law; it's supposed to be voluntary — another big part of the lawsuit.)

Valdez said she's hoping more local officials will follow Acevedo's lead in the wake of the vote on the SB 4 lawsuit and will make their positions crystal clear. And while she gave the mayor and the ten council members who voted for the litigation some kudos, she said the community won't forget which council members voted no. They include council members Brenda Stardig, Dave Martin, Steve Le, Greg Travis, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh.

"Really what this was about was the power of community," Valdez said, "of immigrants speaking their truth, telling their stories, being at the forefront of these issues and motivating other Houstonians to stand alongside them. And that's what's really what will eventually bring us to a victory of real protection."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn