Some citizens and state lawmakers are now pressuring Harris County Commissioners to join the ongoing lawsuit against Senate Bill 4, commonly known as the "sanctuary cities" law.
SB 4, which Governor Greg Abbott signed into law in May, lets police question immigration status of people they detain and punishes officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The big debate Tuesday during the regularly scheduled commissioners meeting wasn’t over whether the law was right or wrong, but rather, whether or not counties like Harris can they legally get any kind of result from suing since they are an arm of the state.
After rallies against Senate Bill 4 outside the federal courtroom in San Antonio hearing the lawsuit, some of the same citizens there Monday brought the same message 200 miles east to Harris County Commissioners on Tuesday during public speakers portion of the meeting.
“If we are to live up to this sentiment (of Houston being a welcoming city), we just join the lawsuit against SB 4,” said one woman from the podium. “It is not a choice, it’s a necessity.
“I urge Harris County to be the inclusive county that it has been,” another speaker said.
It’s the same plea 14 Houston-area state representatives made Monday to key decision makers in the county with the country’s fifth-largest foreign-born population. Those lawmakers fear racial profiling and violation of Constitutional rights, and they worry Hispanic residents will be less likely to come forward or report crime.
However, supporters of the bill believe it will help enforce existing laws and keep violent criminals off the streets. County Judge Ed Emmett says he also hears the concerns from his county attorney and sheriff about how their ability to protect children and the Hispanic community could be impacted, respectively.
Emmett’s question: Can the county legally make a difference by suing?
“We are part of the legislature,” Emmett said. “They create counties and abolish counties. Can we really turn around and sue the government we’re a part of? I don’t know that we can.”
Others in the courtroom had a different viewpoint.
“I know Maverick County and El Paso County are part of this suit as well, so they have decided to take that step and ‘sue themselves’, if you want to use that construction,” one speaker said.
“Certainly the county can take other measures such as amicus briefs,” Cesar Espinosa, director of advocacy group FIEL Houston, told the commissioners.
Three counties have joined Houston and other major Texas cities in the lawsuit, which had its first hearing on Monday in San Antonio. Judge Orlando Garcia is still deciding whether to block the law from kicking in while the lawsuit makes its way through court.
“I do know that Judge Garcia has ruled that counties and other entities do have the ability to intervene in the lawsuit as parties,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis of Precinct 1. “I know he’ll look at that issue, and I’m going to ask the court to take a position.”
Commissioner Ellis also said he’d work with County Attorney Vince Ryan, who submitted a declaration to the court in San Antonio with his perspective on SB 4, to see if they could intervene in a way that other commissioners would support.
Commissioner Ellis on Tuesday filed a letter requesting Harris County Commissioners Court to vote July 11 on whether to join the lawsuit.