Judge Lina Hidalgo (D), who first won election in 2018, introduced the proposal as a supplemental agenda item just four days prior to the Commissioners Court meeting.
Calling the U.S. Immigration system “deeply broken and complicated,” Hidalgo said that without an attorney the system is “almost impossible to navigate.” She added that since local immigrants pay taxes, deportations “cost the community millions of dollars.”
Hidalgo’s resolution calls for the county’s Community Services Department (CSD) to “design, administer funds for, and oversee an immigrant legal services program, subject to final approval by Commissioners Court.”
Hidalgo says the plan will cost an estimated $500,000 in the first year. A long term cost analysis was not presented.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) read a lengthy list of organizations already offering legal services to illegal immigrants, and questioned the appropriateness of adding an additional burden to the CSD, which is already struggling to manage county disaster recovery programs.
Cagle said while he supported some parts of Hidalgo’s resolution “wholeheartedly,” he had not had sufficient time to analyze the resolution as written and could not vote for it on such short notice.
“Judge, in the name of transparency and openness and public engagement, what I’m being asked to vote on, serious things, I’d like to have more than just a few days,” said Cagle.
Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) also said he would prefer to take just two more weeks to analyze and tweak the resolution before a vote, but Hidalgo insisted on moving forward immediately.
Numerous witnesses addressed the court in support of Hidalgo’s plan, and a few were also on hand to voice opposition.
Marla Lopez, who identified herself as a census organizer, said, “This country…is profiting off of the massive deportation, the massive incarceration of communities of color, especially immigrant communities of color, black people, queer people, of all kinds. And it is not fair.”
Following the commissioners’ vote to approve, the Texas Freedom Caucus strongly condemned the plan and noted that the U.S. Customs & Immigration Services website provides contact information for pro-bono legal services in Harris County.
“Taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay more for services that are already being provided through charities,” said State Representative and Caucus chair Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville).
Middleton also noted that the Harris County Commissioners Court sent a lobbyist to Austin last year to testify against restrictions on local tax hikes, saying they would not be able to provide essential services like police, fire, and EMS.
“Yet here they are once again advocating for providing unnecessary, duplicative, and wasteful services at the expense of us all for the benefit of a just a few.”
Texas law prohibits so-called “Sanctuary City” or “Sanctuary County” policies, but First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard assured commissioners that the legal services plan would not comprise any interference with federal immigration law.
In approving Hidalgo’s resolution, Harris County will become the first county in Texas to offer legal services to illegal immigrants, although the cities of Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas have been providing similar assistance.
Other locations offering taxpayer-funded deportation defense services include New York, Seattle, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
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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.