Broken Border

Art Acevedo urges Congress to act on immigration reform: "We cannot have groundhog day, day in and day out"

Amid the specter of family deportations in Houston, many Texas officials and migrant advocates agree it’s past time that federal lawmakers address the nation’s complicated asylum and immigration systems. But opinions vary about whether state and federal responses in recent days will prompt congressional action.

A law enforcement official walks past a transport bus used to carry migrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
Broken Border

A surge of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border has pushed the country's immigration system to the breaking point as new policies aimed at both undocumented immigrants and legal asylum seekers have contributed to a humanitarian crisis. The Texas Tribune is maintaining its in-depth reporting on this national issue.

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President Donald Trump’s vow to potentially deport immigrant families facing deportation orders, including some in Houston, and Texas leaders’ deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border could ratchet up the political pressure on Congress to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.

Many local officials and migrant advocates agree it’s past time that federal lawmakers address the nation’s complicated asylum and immigration systems. But their opinions are varied about whether state and federal responses — and the specter of deportation raids aimed at families that could come in two weeks — will prompt congressional action.

They also disagree on the impact such political statements and bureaucratic maneuvers have on undocumented immigrants already living here and whether the surge of migrants seeking to cross the country’s southern border is worth the potential congressional outcome.

"The bottom line is that when you make those general threats, it does have a chilling effect on people that are our neighbors," says Houston police Chief Art Acevedo.

“I don’t know if it’s an effective way or not an effective way,” Houston police Chief Art Acevedo told The Texas Tribune late Saturday. “The bottom line is that when you make those general threats, it does have a chilling effect on people that are our neighbors, they’re our friends, they’re our workers, parents of American-born children.”

When Trump delayed Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids this weekend that would have targeted families facing deportation orders — including people living in Houston — he said in a tweet he was doing so to give federal lawmakers a chance to address “Asylum and Loophole problems” at the U.S.-Mexico border.

BuzzFeed reported Saturday that leaks to the media about the pending operations may have prompted the president to call off the plans. Despite the reasoning, Trump’s announced delay has done little to quell the fears of immigrants in Houston.

“Honestly, just because he says that, doesn’t mean it won’t happen either,” said Laura Perez-Boston with the Workers Defense Project in Houston.

Trump’s Saturday tweet echoed statements from Texas’ top elected officials, also Republicans, who lambasted Congress one day earlier for not overhauling the nation’s immigration laws as a surge of migrants cross the southern border. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized the inaction Friday as they and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen announced the deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border to help federal customs agents.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin is welcoming those resources. He has grappled with how to respond after U.S. Border Patrol dropped off more than 120 migrant families in his tiny Rio Grande Valley community of 16,000 as the continuing influx of immigrants crossing the border has stressed processing centers and holding facilities.

“I get $50 a month for being the mayor of Uvalde,” Don McLaughlin said. “I took on the job because I enjoy my community. I want to see my community grow, and I want to see my community prosper. I’m not in the business to do immigration; that’s what we have federal immigration laws for.”

The city has paid to transport all of the people that border agents have dropped off to San Antonio, which McLaughlin says offers better access to support services.

“It’s not that we don’t want them in Uvalde; we don’t have the facilities for them. We don’t have the housing for them. We don’t have a place to shelter them,” McLaughlin said.

Acevedo and police chiefs of other major cities across the country have laid out a nine-point policy proposal for Trump and Congress to adopt to get local police out of the business of enforcing federal immigration law.

“When they say we’re a 'sanctuary city,' they’re absolutely wrong,” Acevedo said. “There is no sanctuary in our city for anyone that would do harm to the people that we serve and not just this city, but across the country.”

He said that his officers focus on keeping neighborhoods safe from people breaking criminal laws, regardless of their citizenship status. Those efforts can be hindered when undocumented immigrants, afraid of being deported, don’t report crimes or step forward as witnesses to aid in prosecution.

“The key to immigration enforcement is not rhetoric; it’s not instilling fear and pushing people further into the darkness,” Acevedo said. “We don’t care about their status; we focus on behavior. We don’t focus on immigration status because our job is to fight crime and not enforce immigration laws. That’s a federal responsibility.”

He said overhauling the nation’s immigration laws should be federal officials’ focus.

“We cannot have groundhog day, day in and day out, with no action being taken by Congress, by the president, in terms of fixing our immigration system,” Acevedo said.

At a press conference in Houston on Sunday, Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said she has tried for decades to get immigration reform legislation through Congress and blamed Republicans for blocking it. She criticized Trump for choosing not "to delve into a cooperative process." And she said that he doesn't need Congress to increase the number of facilities holding asylum seekers or increase the number of federal judges who preside over immigration cases.

She also expressed skepticism that Congress will overhaul immigration laws in a span of days.

"I do not expect there to be a miracle, though I hope for a miracle in two weeks," she said.

Perez-Boston, with the Workers Defense Project, hopes Congress rewrites immigration laws. But she’s not optimistic that threatening deportations of families will increase the likelihood of such action.

“Even if something positive comes out of this, it’s immoral to be playing with people’s lives,” she said. “Of course, it would be awesome to have comprehensive immigration reform, but if that was really the intention of this administration, we would not have seen intentional strategies to separate families, put children in cages and, more recently, move to try to deny children access to basic necessities even in detention centers.”

Chris Vazquez and Richard Loria contributed reporting.