Houston Community News >> Houston Illegal Immigrants Safe Haven

7/30/2006 Houston-- With a 30 percent Hispanic population and residents from all over the world, Houston has long had a live-and-let-live attitude toward immigrants. But that attitude is being challenged this year with the national debate raging over immigration law and the political season heating up. Anti-immigration billboards have sprouted up, and city leaders considered ending funding for a large day labor site


Most recently, conservative politicians called for an end to a policy preventing police from asking all people they encounter about their citizenship status. Critics say the policy makes Houston a "sanctuary city," where police can't enforce federal immigration law and illegal immigrants don't worry about arrest.

"One of the problems is that cities through these policies have become magnets for illegal immigration," said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative group Judicial Watch, which has sued Los Angeles over a similar policy. "It's bad enough the federal government isn't doing its job. But even if it wanted to, its job is made much more difficult by the sanctuary policies that cities such as Houston have."

Thirty-two U.S. cities and counties have such policies, including Houston, New York, Austin and Seattle, according to a Congressional Research Service report. A group called Protect Our Citizens is gathering signatures for a November ballot referendum that would amend Houston's city charter to allow police to verify any suspect's citizenship.

U.S. Rep John Culberson, R-Houston, last month added an amendment to an appropriations bill that would block federal law enforcement money for cities with "sanctuary policies." The spending measure still has to be discussed in the Senate. Mayor Bill White and police department officials deny Houston is a sanctuary city, saying officers will arrest anybody, including illegal immigrants, as needed. But White added that officers would be diverted from priority calls if they had to check the citizenship status of every person they dealt with.

"People are frustrated about the lack of a federal policy on immigration," he said. "But citizens should not allow their frustration on this issue to handcuff our law enforcement so they cannot respond to the complaints of citizens." The Houston policy allows officers to inquire about citizenship status if a person is arrested for anything other than a traffic or city ordinance violation.

But Houston City Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is seeking the nod to be former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's replacement in the race for his congressional seat, said officers should be allowed to check in any situation. "Many criminals and terrorists are caught because they are also breaking lower-level laws," she said. "Misdemeanors are still laws. That is a tool that has been denied our police officers," she said.

Craig Ferrell, general counsel for the Houston Police Department, said officers can't legally question individuals solely on the suspicion they are in the country illegally. He also noted police need immigrants to feel comfortable talking to authorities and not fear deportation. "There are lots of people with a questionable immigration status," he said. "They are witnesses to crimes. It's important to have assistance from law abiding people to solve crimes and keep the city safe."

Police "need every tool at their disposal to identify criminal aliens that are evading federal authorities and hiding behind sanctuary policies," said Culberson, who along with other critics cite examples of illegal immigrants who weren't questioned about their citizenship status and later committed serious crimes. Houston City Councilwoman Carol Alvarado called anti-immigration efforts an "immoral" result of election-year politics.

Alvarado is helping organize opposition to the referendum movement. "It's a way of scapegoating one segment of the population to drive up voter participation in another segment," she said. "Our police officers need to be out there chasing real criminals."  

(Contributed by JUAN A. LOZANO, AP)