LEAGUE CITY — Last week’s City Council vote on a resolution to turn away requests from federal authorities for help in housing undocumented immigrants wasn’t a first battle in the city involving illegal immigration.
It is just the latest chapter and likely won’t be the last.
In the early-morning hours of Jan. 19, 2006 League City police officers joined with officers of Immigrations and Customs Enforcements in a citywide sweep of suspected undocumented immigrants. The focus of the sweep wasn’t to curb the daily collection of day laborers on street corners throughout the city.
Police were seeking out Rigoberto Sanchez, who was wanted in connection to a 2002 auto accident that killed four people. Police also wanted to find suspects as part of a pair of sexual assault investigations.
On that day 62 people, most confirmed to be in the country illegally, were rounded up. By the end of the day all but two were released with only a promise that if they were in the country illegally they would return for a court hearing.
Those not in the country illegally were given apologies and sent on their way.
The raid didn’t result in the arrests of the suspects sought, but two men were taken by Immigration because one had a warrant for an assault charge. The other had an extensive criminal history in California, officials said.
Publicly, local authorities did not criticize the roundup, but privately police and city officials blasted the federal government’s handling of the operation. That’s because instead of rounding up dangerous criminals as local officials were promised by federal authorities, dozens of residents — legally in the country or not — were left in town and on city streets for city officials to deal with.
When questioned after the roundup why those found to be in the country illegally were not also taken into custody, federal officials were blunt.
Louisa Deason, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said only those with outstanding warrants or those determined to be a threat to the community would be taken into custody.
“It’s a matter of setting a priority because we simply do not have enough beds to take them all into custody,” Deason said. ”We are looking for those with a warrant of deportation sex offenders or (those who) pose a threat to the community. Those are the ones we are interested in.”
Eight years later, League City is once again in the center of the illegal immigration debate. Local officials again complain that the federal government isn’t doing enough.
This time, though, city officials aren’t speaking in hushed tones behind closed doors or off the record.
Day laborer crackdown
League City’s relationship with undocumented immigrants has been one of resistance, uneasy acceptance and often indifference.
The collection of day laborers in front of convenience stores and on street corners was one of the unspoken problems in the city driven mostly because of the city’s housing boom of the early 2000s. City officials and particularly contractors who hired them were well aware that most were in the country illegally.
Still, the labor was in general cheaper and required no paperwork. Chances are that many of the same people who voiced their support for the resolution are living in houses that in part were constructed by workers in the country illegally.
Three years after the citywide roundup, the city tried to do what it could about what many claimed was a problem and public safety risk.
In 2009 then Police Chief Mike Jez directed the city’s police officers to monitor day laborer gathering spots and issue warnings or citations or arrest laborers soliciting work.
The policy won cheers from many residents and had general support on City Council. It drew condemnations from LULAC and other civil rights groups.
In 2011 a group of day laborers, with the help of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, sued the city and won an initial federal court decision.
Instead of appealing, the city last summer settled the lawsuit for $357,000.
In 2014, League City is once again wrestling with the issues of illegal immigration. Even those backing the resolution that won overwhelming support from City Council last week agree that it should be the federal government’s job to manage the situation.
Feds ‘bungled’ latest crisis
Councilwoman Heidi Thiess, who authored the resolution and was its biggest champion, argues that the federal government has “bungled” the situation.
She said the growing frustration with the federal government’s handling of the situation and what she considers a lack of transparency — she referred to it as secrecy — is “disturbing,” and “shocking.”
The resolution, which many legal experts agree likely won’t hold up to any legal challenge, was more of a message sender than anything, she said last week before the issues was voted on by council.
Thiess’ frustration and that of the majority of council who backed her is evident.
She accuses federal authorities too of being “lawless,” in handling the most recent crisis as thousands of undocumented immigrants, mostly from Central America, are crossing into the United States each day.
“The (federal) government is not asking for anyone’s permission, no one gets a hearing on whether or not they want these (housing) centers in their communities,” Thiess said before the resolution passed. “They are bypassing state authorities and municipal authorities and they are going straight into communities without getting public input (and) without getting public feedback.”
Something, she insists, needs to be done so that local governments resources aren’t “overwhelmed.”