The announced arrival of citizen immigration patrols in Houston has rekindled a long-smoldering debate over the city’s hands-off policy toward illegal immigrants.
Since 1992, Houston police officers have been officially forbidden from enforcing immigration law in most cases. Other city departments generally take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach toward immigrants, officials acknowledge.
Now those policies are under attack. Locally, City Councilman Mark Ellis called this week for training HPD officers to enforce immigration laws. And in Washington, D.C., congressional conservatives have proposed legislation to require local police to help patrol for illegal immigrants.
Ellis, a Republican, said city officials should have heeded a 2002 proposal from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to increase federal and local cooperation on immigration law.
“If we had done what Ashcroft and the Bush administration had asked us to do, we wouldn’t have the Minutemen coming to Houston,” Ellis said of the Arizona-based organization opposed to illegal immigration that has announced it will begin patrols in Houston in October.
An investigation last year by the Congressional Research Service cited 31 cities across the country with policies that prevent local authorities from enforcing immigration laws. That includes Houston, Katy and Austin, as well as cities such as Fairbanks, Alaska.
Craig Nelsen, a Washington-based activist who opposes sanctuary cities through his group, ProjectUSA, says the trend lately is for cities to implement their sanctuary policies administratively, and sometimes without putting them in writing.
Nelsen claims leaders in these cities know their policies are not popular, and they take their action quietly to stifle public debate.
Houston’s policy is more complex than sometimes portrayed. In 1992, Houston Police Chief Sam Nuchia signed General Order 500-5, which states: “Officers shall not make inquiries as to the citizenship status of any person, nor will officers detain or arrest persons solely on the belief that they are in this country illegally.”
But the policy has never been formally approved by the City Council and does not officially govern other departments. Before he became a city councilman, immigration attorney Gordon Quan lobbied for a law that would make Houston a “Safety Zone” for illegal immigrants. The proposal died in 1997 after garnering no council support.
McMenemy recently attended an organizational meeting of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and says he knows of a number of other former HPD officers who are considering joining the effort. He said the Minutemen will only film illegal immigrants to draw attention to the fact that no one is doing anything about the problem, and he wonders why so many officials oppose that.
“It’s like the Minutemen are the illegals,” he said.
But Treviño said that if citizens and even police started entering Hispanic neighborhoods and asking locals for their documents, it would create a major backlash.
“It’ll be worse than the Civil War,” he said.