Amid Harvey's Destruction, Federal Judge Halts SB4

A ray of hope for undocumented immigrants in Houston, which were some of the most vulnerable to Harvey's wrath.

By Roxanna Asgarian August 31, 2017

Water rescues were still being made in Houston Wednesday when a federal judge in San Antonio put a temporary halt to much of the law known as SB4, which would impose harsh penalties on sanctuary cities and has exacerbated fear in undocumented communities in Texas. The announcement provided some much-needed relief to the estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants living in Houston, who are some of the most vulnerable to the destruction of the Harvey floods.

Referred to by critics as a "show me your papers" law, SB4 would allow police to question the citizenship status of people they detain or arrest, and outlines punishments, including removal of office and even jail time, for police chiefs and mayors who don’t cooperate with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. When the hotly contested bill passed in May, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the law would have a "chilling effect on the immigrant community," and make it less likely for immigrant crime victims to seek police help. 

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia halted the law from taking effect on September 1 as scheduled while a lawsuit against the SB4, filed by the border community of El Cenizo and joined by the cities of Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas, and El Paso County, moves forward. Although Garcia upheld the portion of the bill that allows police officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest—one of the most controversial aspects of the law—he said the officers were limited in what they could do with that information.

The judge ruled that barring local officials from setting their own policies around immigration laws would likely be ruled unconstitutional, and also halted the portion of the law that would impose punishments on local officials. "The public interest in protecting constitutional rights, maintaining trust in local law enforcement and avoiding the heavy burdens that SB4 imposes on local entities will be served by enjoining these portions of SB4," Garcia said in his ruling. Governor Abbott said the state will appeal the decision immediately. "Today's decision makes Texas' communities less safe," he said in a statement.

In storm-battered Houston, where conflicting initial statements caused fear of immigration-status checks as undocumented people evacuated their homes, local officials tried to stress that all people, regardless of their immigration status, were welcome at shelters around the city.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, an attorney, said he'd represent undocumented evacuees himself if they faced deportation, and local officials made numerous statements in Spanish in the media and on Twitter aimed at calming the fear that had swept through Houston's immigrant communities. But with SB4 set to take effect Friday, many were still nervous and mistrustful.

John Nechman, a local immigration attorney who has been volunteering at the Red Cross Shelter that was at one point housing 9,000 people at George R Brown, said he feared many weren't getting the help they needed.

"I was struck at George R. Brown by how few Latino families there were. They were terrified to go," Nechman says. "We’re really lucky that people like [Fire Chief Samuel] Pena and Chief Acevedo go out of their way to make sure the message gets through to the Spanish-speaking community, but when they don’t see it coming from our governor or our lieutenant governor, people are torn at which direction to trust or believe."

Nechman said many of his clients, even those who are legal immigrants, reached out to him to express relief at the halting of SB4. "That relief factor is going to go a long way for those that are suffering through Harvey," he says. "It's one gigantic weight off their minds right now."

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