Houston Council votes to oppose “sanctuary cities” bill

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With television cameras trained on them, Houston City Council members debate whether to join in a lawsuit opposing Texas’s recently passed “sanctuary cities” bill.

The small group of incoming high-school freshmen probably didn’t know exactly what they were in for when they attended Wednesday’s Houston City Council meeting. What they got was an excellent example of the debate of competing ideas and democracy in action.

The group of six or so boys, members of a baseball teach coached by District B Councilmember Jerry Davis, a teacher at a religiously affiliated school in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood, were seated in the Council chamber’s front row.

Davis’s skills honed in teaching and coaching were in full evidence as he explained to the boys what they were about to witness:  a debate and vote on whether Houston would join in a lawsuit filed by other Texas cities (including perennial rival Dallas) in opposing Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the so-called “sanctuary cities bill” passed by the Texas Legislature in its recently expired regular session.

The bill, passed along strict party lines in both the Texas Senate and House and signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, would impose sanctions on municipalities considered “sanctuary cities” if they are thought t be working against enforcement of federal immigration policy — primarily by not allowing the city’s police officers inquire into the immigration status of people they detain or question.

Davis, a Democrat (although, as he explained to the youngsters, Houston’s politics are ostensibly non-partisan), laid out the reasons he and many of his colleagues oppose the bill.

The primary reason, he told them, was that they see SB4 as unconstitutional, since it could lead to racial profiling. The law, which does not go into effect until September 1, could also make it harder for police to do their jobs, he said, since members of minority communities might be more reluctant to report crimes to themselves or act as witnesses. And, he told them, the law would allow Texas’s attorney general to act to remove city officials who don’t comply with its provisions.

Davis also brought over Texas Sen.  Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat who serves Houston’s largely Hispanic East End, to describe her own opposition to the bill. A former Houston councilwoman, Garcia was among several Democratic state representatives who strongly urged the Council members to join the lawsuit during a Tuesday public hearing that lasted until around 8 p.m. and put the emotions around the issue on full display. (No Republican members of the Houston-area delegation to the Legislature appeared.)

But Davis, ever the educator, also made it a point to present the boys with the opposing side. Since their own representative, Greg Travis of District G, wasn’t yet in the chamber, he introduced them to Councilmember Dave Martin, whose District E encompasses the outlying Clear Lake community in the south and Kingwood in the north.

Travis, a Republican, laid out the primary stated reasons he and his fellow opponents of joining the lawsuit — since the litigation is already pending, Houston really has no reason to join in. Although Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city’s in-house legal expenses in joining the lawsuit would be about $250,000, Travis said the final cost is likely to be much higher. And, he said, it was incumbent on city officials to follow a duly enacted law and let the litigation take its natural course through the courts.

Davis and Travis both told the students that although they had honest disagreements over whether to join the lawsuit, they remained friends and would continue to work together after the vote.

When the meeting officially started, the Council moved through some preliminary business before turning to the main item of the day:  the briefly stated “RESOLUTION in support of the City of Houston joining to challenge Senate Bill 4 (Commonly known as the Texas Sanctuary Cities Bill).”

As the debate among the Council members began, the emotions behind the dispute were evident, although perhaos not to the degree from the previous day’s hearing, when a standing-room-only crowd filled the chamber and there was often a raucous reaction among audience members to statements made by the more than 150 people who signed up to speak.

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People both for and against Houston joining in the SB4 litigation filled the Council chamber for more than six hours during a public hearing the day before the vote.

Adding to that atmosphere, a pair of Hispanic men standing outside City Hall could be heard playing indigenous drums and chanting in the second-floor council chamber.

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Two Hispanic men play indigenous drums and chant, as heard from the second-floor Council chambers during the public hearing.

Deferring to the elected officials present, the Council allowed most of them — including the state representatives, a couple of members of local education boards and even a newly elected 18-year-old board member of suburban Pearland ISD — to speak first.

As the representatives spoke, they were by turn questioned by Council members who staked out their positions in the debate — with those in favor of joining the lawsuit often stressing the welcoming nature of Houston, the state’s largest city (and fourth — perhaps soon to be third — most populous in the country), and the most demographically diverse large city in the country, with perhaps the largest number of foreign consulates and hundreds of languages spoken.

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Texas Rep. Carol Alvarado, standing at podium at left, spars with Councilman Greg Travis, far right, the during hours-long public hearing on Tuesday.

By contrast, they often sparred with the Council members — most vocal among them Martin, Travis and Mike Knox — who opposed joining the litigation.

When sharply questioned by Travis why Houston should spend money — and possibly put at risk millions of dollars in state and federal funding — to join in the already existing litigation, Rep. Carol Alvarado (herself a former Houston Council member) answered forcefully that it was about showing leadership. As the largest city in the state with the most diverse population, Alvarado said, it was incumbent on Houston to lead by example, and not wait to be the beneficiaries of other cities’ fight.

Many of the regular constituents spoke of their fear of families being torn apart, being forced to carry identification papers with them at all times, the fear of oppression. Others said they favored law and order, including an elderly man who said he often witnessed violence among immigrants waiting for odd jobs near the Home Deport where he works.

While the atmosphere in the chamber on Wednesday was perhaps less boisterous, it was no less emotionally charged. At-Large Councilman Position 5 Jack Christie urged his colleagues to abstain from the vote (put in motion by Mayor Turner, who later said he was spurred to action by the city’s legal team determining that SB4 was unconstitutional), since Houston was not in a position to solve the long-contentious national immigration debate.

District H Councilmember Karla Cisneros, also an educator, nearly choked up as she described times when she knew of students whose parents were deported.

District F Councilman Steve Le (who had been largely silent during the previous day’s hearing), spoke forcefully about what he called the exceptions to enforcement action in SB4, which he said he’s only read the night before. As an immigrant himself (his family fled Vietnam in the wake of the war), Le said he favored legal immigration and “an orderly process.”

District C Councilmember and Mayor Pro-Tem Ellen Cohen quoted the famous “First they came …” quotation by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, written after the Nazi era, in which the narrator bemoans that he did not speak up when the fascists targeted various groups until there was no one left to speak up for the him. Now was the time, Cohen said, for Houston to speak up.

Turner brought the discussion to a close, saying “This is not an issue of our choosing.” The Republican-led state legislature brought the issue to Houston by enacting SB4, and it now fell to Houston to deal with an issue that has “ended up on our plate.” The Legislature, he said, was attempting to insert itself into his and the police department’s command structure, trying to force its officers of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We are not ICE, and we are not going to act like ICE,” he said.

District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos, one of the most vocal proponents of joining the lawsuit, called for a voice vote. One by one, the members stated their choice, with varying degrees of forcefulness. In the end, it was 10-6 for joining the lawsuit, with Christie, who had called for abstaining, absent from the chamber.

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Houston City Council members and Democratic Texas Representatives greet supporters after the 10-6 vote to join the lawsuit against SB4.

Enthusiastic voices filled the chamber and spilled to the hallway outside, as Gallegos, other council members and Garcia, the state senator, greeted supporters.

After the full meeting concluded, Turner, the mayor, discussed the vote at length with reporters. He stressed that this was not a fight he or the Council had sought out. But, he said, he believed SB4 is unconstitutional, and the proper forum to hash that out is in the courts — likely at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner talks to reporters after the 10-6 vote to join in the litigation against SB4.

In the meantime, he said, the law’s effect on ordinary Houstonians must be addressed. Houston already complies with federal immigration laws, he said — for instance, honoring requests for detentions for people held in the city’s custody.

A temporary injunction hearing in the litigation is set for June 26.

NOTE: This post originally referred  to Texas Sen. Sylvia Garcia as a Representative.

Copyright © 2017 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.

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About Ken Fountain

I'm a journalist and writer in Houston, Texas. My areas of specialty inxfcgclude law and courts, local government and industry and environmental issues. You can follow me on Twitter at @twitter.com/kenfountain and email me at kenfountain1 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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