The county's Community Services Department was directed to look into setting up an Immigrant Legal Services Fund by the Harris County Commissioners Court in February in a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle dissenting. The motion that passed at the Nov. 10 meeting officially approved the implementation of the program and was passed along the same margin.
The program has been pitched by the court's Democratic majority as a way to inject fairness into the justice system, which they said leads to families being separated and people being deported when they may have a legal right to remain.
"The focus of this ... is to make sure folks have access to due process," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. "When you have a family in the deportation proceedings and they don’t have an attorney, they are deported at a much, much higher rate—like 90% of the time compared to something like 5% of the time when they do have an attorney."
Under the program, the county would work with nonprofits that provide legal aid. The county would inject $2 million to fund services for the first two years and would also look to draw down matching funds from the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a research organization that works to secure equal justice for immigrants and other groups.
Cagle and Radack said they opposed the measure based on the belief that immigration was a federal issue that fell outside the county's purview.
"Although I’m very supportive of the nonprofits and the work they’ve done on this area, this is not the purview of county government ... and county taxpayer dollars," Cagle said.
Another measure passed the court unanimously at the Nov. 10 meeting directing the Justice Administration Department to draft a plan for how law enforcement agencies in the county interact with immigrant crime victims who are requesting certain visas. In a separate motion, the court directed the CSD to draft a request for proposals for services to help immigrant crime victims obtain visas that allow them to seek legal representation without fear of deportation. The county put $500,000 into the program.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who put the two items on the agenda, said the funding could help victims navigate the process for T visas, which allow victims of human trafficking to remain in the country if they agree to help law enforcement; U visas, which apply to victims of crime who have suffered abuse; and S visas, which are given to immigrants who help law enforcement prosecute criminals.
Several public speakers at the Nov. 10 meeting spoke in favor of both programs, including individuals who are already providing legal help to immigrants. Elise Griesmyer, who leads the crime victim assistance program with Catholic Charities, testified on the current lack of resources and how much demand has grown since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, leading to a rise in domestic abuse cases. The nonprofit has been unable to take on new cases for four months in 2020, she said.
Griesmyer told the story of one client who fled with her children to the Houston Women's Center after her spouse abused her and choked her until she was unconscious in front of her daughter. After getting legal help, she was able to become a self-sufficient single mother with a job, she said.
"None of this would have been possible without pro-bono services," Griesmyer said. "For so many survivors in Houston, it is the only option available."
Naiyolis Palomo Garcia with the Immigrant Resource Center said Harris County is one of the top counties in the U.S. when it comes to deportations and arrests made by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"The proposed funding would not cover all [needs], but it would have profound impact on the families it is able to help," she said.