In a 3 to 2 party-line vote, the Harris County Commissioners Court has approved spending more than $2 million over the next two years to provide legal services for illegal immigrants residing in the county.
Last February, County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) had initiated her plan to provide the services, but at that time said the cost for the first year would be approximately $500,000. This week’s vote serves to officially implement the Immigrant Legal Services Fund (ILSF) and allocates $2,050,000 to cover costs for the next two years.
The ILSF will consist of a county-wide program to assist with the provision of legal representation for indigent immigrant adults, children, or families in detention or facing the threat of deportation who are residents of Harris County.
In addition, the county is creating a new full-time assistant director of immigration, who will develop and implement plans to “ensure that the county better serves the needs of our immigrant residents.”
Hidalgo explained that immigrants without an attorney are deported at rates of 90 percent while those with an attorney are only deported approximately 5 percent of the time.
“So it just means that people who have a valid claim to be here and who of course contribute significantly to our economy are being deported not because they should, but simply because they don’t have the ability to present their valid claim,” Hidalgo said.
The commissioners court vote also allows for the county to apply to become a part of the Vera Institute for Justice’s Safety and Fairness for Everyone (SAFE) Network.
Founded in 2017, the SAFE Network consists of 18 cities and counties designating taxpayer funds for a collaborative effort with immigration legal service providers to craft a public defender system for all immigrants facing deportation.
SAFE Network participants commit to providing “universal representation” for any immigrant “regardless of income, race, national origin, or history with the criminal legal system.” The group’s stated goal is to make publicly funded universal representation for any illegal resident a federal mandate.
Other jurisdictions in the SAFE Network include large urban areas such as Los Angeles and New York City, as well as the Texas cities of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.
Along with the vote to create the ILSF, commissioners unanimously approved a related proposal from Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct.2) to allocate $500,000 for services to county residents who may be eligible for immigration relief due to status as a victim of crime passed unanimously.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct.4) noted the district attorney’s (DA) office did already have a similar program, and he attempted to add a friendly amendment that would also allocate funds to the DA to assist in the prosecution of related offenses, but Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct.1) quickly motioned to table that amendment, saying they could take that up in determining the DA’s budget.
Controversy over immigration issues came to fore recently with the shooting death of Houston Police Sergeant Harold Preston. Suspect Elmer Rolando Manzano and his estranged wife were illegal residents. Although Manzano had a criminal history and served a jail sentence, U.S. Immigrations and Customs (ICE) did not issue a detainer until after his arrest for murder. His wife had repeatedly but unsuccessfully sought assistance from law enforcement due to allegations of domestic abuse.
In another case earlier this year, a Harris County judge released a man charged with Driving While Intoxicated and Failure to Stop and Give Information on a $100 General Order bond, despite his having standing deportation orders.
At a recent City of Houston press conference, Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said that one in four traffic fatalities is related to driving under the influence. City leadership plans to unveil a transportation plan soon, known as “Vision Zero,” aimed at eliminating traffic deaths entirely.
Although Texas law, Senate Bill 4, passed in 2017 prohibits so-called “Sanctuary City” or “Sanctuary County” policies, Harris County and other jurisdictions have backed away from assisting with enforcement of immigration laws in the past few years. After taking office three years ago, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez (D) announced that his department would opt out of the 287(G) program, under which sheriff’s deputies were trained to identify suspects with deportation orders.
According to statistics provided by Hidalgo, more than 25 percent of county residents are “foreign born,” with an estimated 412,000 of those being “undocumented.”
In explaining his opposition to the ILSF, Cagle said the deportation issues were a federal matter.
“I am very supportive of the nonprofits and their work in this area, but I think this is not the purview of county government and county taxpayer dollars,” said Cagle. “Having said that, I have a view with regard to victims of crime occurring here in Harris County, which is within, I believe, the county’s purview.”
Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Pct.3), who will be retiring this year, voted with Cagle in opposition to funds for the ILSF, while Hidalgo, Ellis, and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct.2) voted in favor.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.