Turner Pledges to Protect Immigrants, But Avoids Calling Houston "Sanctuary City"

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In the wake of the presidential election, Mayor Sylvester Turner is taking steps to promise undocumented immigrants or newly arrived refugees that he will strive to keep them safe and respect their rights in Houston. The election of a certain someone, whom he did not name, will not change Houston's commitment to welcoming all walks of life and valuing diversity, Turner pledged at a press conference Monday morning.

To demonstrate this pledge, Turner has created the Office of New Americans, to help immigrants and refugees integrate into their new communities and access services they may need. He has also launched a new task force, made up of organizations such as United We Dream, that will put together a list of recommendations as to how Houston can help its vast immigrant population feel safer. Amid national xenophobic rhetoric from politicians such as President-elect Donald Trump, Turner said Houston will aggressively go after anyone who commits hate crimes against marginalized populations.

The task force, called Welcoming Houston, also has a list of hotlines on its website that immigrants can contact if they ever feel threatened or victimized.

"In the wake of the recent election, many members of our community are asking whether they will continue to have a place in our great city. They fear for themselves, their children and their communities," Turner said. "We cannot ignore those realities. ... I want to be very clear: The City of Houston that existed prior to the election, that welcomed you to this city, that rejoiced in your diversity — that city still exists today. I intend to do everything within my power to respect you, to protect you, and to serve you as mayor."

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza also promised parents and students that they will never have to fear HISD inquiring about students' immigration status or allowing immigration raids at school — that, "when you come to school, you are coming to a safe haven, and we will protect your rights." Likewise, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said HPD officers have no business identifying undocumented immigrants or turning them over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and so immigrants should never be afraid to contact police.

Because the policies were starting to sound awfully similar to the definition of a sanctuary city — a municipality that refuses to enforce federal immigration law among its citizens — reporters afterward addressed the elephant in the room: Would Turner consider officially designating Houston a sanctuary city?

Things got awkward.

A sanctuary city is, by definition, a place where undocumented immigrants can freely go about their lives without fear of prosecution or deportation by local authorities. Despite President-elect Donald Trump's threat to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, mayors of New York and Los Angeles — the two most populous sanctuary cities in the country — have not backed down from their pledges to protect their undocumented immigrants. In Texas, cities that have even gotten close to calling themselves sanctuary cities (none currently exist) received a similar threat from Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott, in Trumpian style, also announced on Twitter November 27 that he will "sign a law that bans sanctuary cities. Also I've already issued an order cutting funding to sanctuary cities."

So perhaps it is no surprise politically, then, when Turner snubbed reporters' sanctuary city questions.

Asked again, more directly, whether he will consider officially designating Houston a sanctuary city, Turner said: "It is a welcoming city. And that is the message I want to emphasize."

United We Dream representative Oscar Hernandez told the Houston Press afterward that using those two words is not necessarily as important as the policies and visions Turner announced Monday, and the public should put more energy into holding Turner accountable for sticking to those promises.

Still, at least one Houstonian at the press conference Monday was upset by Turner's refusal to even utter the words. Yelling from the crowd, he told Turner to stop "cowering" from using the language in a spontaneous monologue that prompted Turner's security detail to step forward near the podium.

And with that, the press conference was over.

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