Texas Cities Pushing Back on Border Surge

Councilwoman Heidi Thiess during a League City Council meeting on July 14, 2014.
Councilwoman Heidi Thiess during a League City Council meeting on July 14, 2014.

City Councilwoman Heidi Thiess of League City swung into action shortly after she saw media reports of Central American children sleeping in cramped detention centers along the Texas-Mexico border.

Thiess sat down and wrote a city resolution barring any immigrant from being housed on an emergency basis in League City, a city of 91,000 southeast of Houston. It passed this month by a 6-to-2 vote.

“We’re not able to take care of our own veterans? We can’t take care of our own homeless and indigents here?” Thiess, a 43-year-old business owner, said, adding that the resolution was directed at the federal government, not at the immigrants. “But we are apparently ready to print money to take more from taxpayers to take care of an influx of hundreds of thousands of people who are illegal here who think they’re going to get a free pass.”

As the number of children crossing the Mexican border into the United States — most originally from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — has risen to more than 57,000 since October, the long-simmering tensions over immigration have reached a boiling point, around the country and in Texas, which accounts for more than half of the country’s border with Mexico. Two Texas counties — Tom Green and Galveston — have passed resolutions similar to League City’s.

Legal specialists say the resolutions are unenforceable because immigration issues are the purview of the federal government and not state, county or municipal governments. Local leaders acknowledged that the measures were largely symbolic, a way to telegraph their unhappiness with the unresolved immigration issue to federal officials.

“They’re frustrated," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said of the residents pushing for the measures. “Everybody has been talking about immigration for going on a decade, and they see the border as not being secured.”

Some immigrant rights advocates have a different explanation.

“What it really comes down to is xenophobia and racism,” said Amelia Ruiz Fischer, a lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit law firm that works on issues including immigration. “That might sound like a pretty extreme way to characterize it, but why else would you not want children who are not public safety risks and who are fleeing their countries trying to save their lives — why else wouldn’t you want them housed?”

Fischer likened the recent resolutions to the efforts of Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, to keep undocumented immigrants from renting housing in the city. The city lost its eight-year battle when the U.S. Supreme Court in March declined to hear the case.

Officials have defended the recent measures by pointing to fears of disease epidemics. The resolution in Tom Green County warns that “the United States is at risk for epidemics of serious diseases and viruses that the nation has not seen in years.” Mayor Tim Paulissen of League City said he became concerned about the risk of disease after hearing media reports of “documented cases” of tuberculosis and scabies in Texas facilities housing the children.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said there have been only three cases of tuberculosis reported among the undocumented children who have come into Texas. More than 1,000 cases are reported annually in Texas.

She also said that while there have been cases of scabies among the children, “it’s not outside the norm of what we would expect and not exotic to the United States.”

Fischer dismissed speculation about potential epidemics as “factually inaccurate.”

“The whole disease thing is just another link to the xenophobia,” she said.