Houston Leads: Seeking Justice and Dignity for All Members of Our Community
The time for Harris County to enact impactful immigration policies is now. Harris County is home to more than 1.2 million immigrants, including at least 412,000 undocumented immigrants. Yet, our county has the highest number of ICE arrests in the nation. The overwhelming majority of these ICE arrests are a result of noncitizens coming into contact with local law enforcement and the criminal legal system, in what is essentially an arrest-to-deportation pipeline.
Harris County is experiencing a mass incarceration and deportation crisis, one that is amplified for black and brown community members residing in Houston and surrounding areas. The need for bold actions with real impact for our communities is more pressing than ever.
We formed Houston Leads, a local coalition of 14 immigrant rights groups, to advocate for local policies that decriminalize people of color and end the mass deportation of immigrant communities. We value the integral contributions of all community members, including immigrants — without whom our economy would collapse and our social fabric would erode. Houston Leads brings together directly impacted people, legal experts, service providers, community organizers and laborers to discuss the needs of our communities and real solutions to the problems we are facing. Our group believes that local government must do its part to protect the rights and dignity of our immigrant community, and create holistic services and resources for those who are funneled into the arrest-to-deportation pipeline.
Therefore, Houston Leads demands that Harris County Commissioners enact the following policies and practices:
- Allocate public funding to establish an Immigrant Legal Defense Fund (ILDF) to provide free legal representation to indigent immigrants (adults and children) who are facing deportation in the Houston immigration courts. Unlike the criminal legal system, immigration courts do not appoint free lawyers for people; therefore, noncitizens bear the burden of obtaining legal counsel, which is often very costly. Thousands of county residents are currently in deportation proceedings and desperately need legal services. A bold budgetary allocation is needed to establish a legal defense fund that can meet this need. Other major cities in Texas, including Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, have already established public funding for deportation defense.
- Commit to long-term solutions to reduce the number of people in jail by encouraging law enforcement and prosecutors to implement pre-arrest and pre-charge diversion programs such as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion). LEAD is a community-based diversion approach which aims to improve public safety and save money. In a LEAD program, police officers divert individuals to intervention programs instead of arresting them for offenses driven by unmet behavioral health needs. LEAD addresses the true drivers of crime — poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse — and gives people access to the important treatment services they need without unnecessarily spending county resources on arrests, jailing, and prosecution. LEAD is already operational in at least 38 cities and counties across the U.S., and studies have shown that LEAD participants are 58% less likely to be arrested in the future.
- Accountability and transparency to produce a quarterly data report and establish clear protocols regarding any resources provided to federal immigration enforcement agencies. For far too long, the immigrant community and advocates have been kept in the dark about any county activity with federal enforcement agencies such as ICE, Border Patrol, and Homeland Security Investigations. Harris County residents should know how many local resources are being used for the federal deportation machine; we should receive clear data on how often local law enforcement agencies are asking individuals for immigration status during daily field activities, and whether there are any racial profiling trends as a result of this practice. Lack of transparency undermines public safety for everyone in Harris County.
- Expand the public defender’s office to include immigration experts and training resources for criminal defense attorneys representing noncitizen defendants. An overwhelming majority of the noncitizens who come into contact with the criminal legal system do not receive advisals on the immigration consequences of their pleas, yet these advisals are required by law. As a result, noncitizens may plead guilty to charges that result in their deportation. In spring 2019, the Harris County public defender’s office expanded their budget, and in collaboration with Houston Leads, is now hiring immigration experts for their office. This is an important first-step to building a public defender’s office that provides holistic representation to defendants, regardless of their immigration status.
Harris County community members face the threat of incarceration and deportation everyday. Houston Leads coalition members have dedicated countless hours to promoting policy solutions and practices. It is imperative that county officials listen to the community’s needs and enact real solutions. Houston Leads will continue championing these solutions until they are implemented, and our communities can live with dignity and without fear.
Houston Leads includes the following organizations: ACLU of Texas, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC), Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), Mi Familia Vota, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Tahirih Justice Center, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, Texas Organizing Project, United We Dream, and Workers Defense Project