The role of cities in shaping immigrant rights: the case of Houston, Texas

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Scholars have long argued that national laws most strongly affect immigrant rights, but recent research questions if that is still the case. With growing immigration policy activism by cities in the United States, Europe, and beyond, scholars increasingly underscore the relevance of also city contexts for shaping new immigrant rights. 

In recent years, cities have created sanctuary policies, as well as noncitizen voting, identification, labour, and language access rights. Most of them are superdiverse gateway cities with large immigrant populations, progressive politics, and numerous civil society organisations, like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But what do immigrant rights struggles look like in cities with less hospitable contexts of reception, such as Houston, Texas?

Houston’s challenging context for immigrant rights

Houston, the fourth largest city in the United States with 2.3 million residents, has undergone a demographic transformation as a result of sustained international migration since World War II. Today, the city is one of the most diverse in the United States and home to over 660,000 immigrants, including many who are undocumented. Despite clear demographic pressures for more immigrant rights policies and integration programs, city officials have resisted the enactment of new immigrant rights, and there is a relative paucity of civil society organisations that focus on immigrant rights.

With Shannon Gleeson, I conducted four case studies of immigrant rights in Houston:

  1. the creation of a city-run immigrant affairs office,
  2. local police collaboration with federal immigration officials,
  3. local implementation of federal immigration benefits, including the U.S. citizenship program and a deportation relief program for undocumented youth, and
  4. protection of immigrant labour rights.

Across these case studies, we learned key lessons about how local demographic, political, and civic contexts shape immigrant rights.

Immigrant demography is not immigrant rights destiny

Roughly one third of Houston’s 2.3 million residents are foreign-born, and two-thirds of them are noncitizens (including many undocumented immigrants). Mexicans are the city’s largest immigrant group, but Houston has attracted newcomers from all over the world, including immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. They speak a staggering 145 different languages, which makes providing language access for them a key issue. The vastly different circumstances of their arrival also create a need for a range of other immigrant-specific programs, including food and family assistance, immigration legal services, employment assistance, and physical and mental health supports.

These international migrants have made Houston’s population ever more diverse, but demography has not been destiny. New immigrant rights and immigrant integration policies have only slowly materialised, even though the city faces an urgent demographic reality that demands them. On the one hand, Houston’s immigrant population is so diverse that it defies a one-size-fits-all integration approach. On the other, advancing immigrant rights typically requires innovation from activist city government officials and civil society advocates seeking to address immigrants’ many and diverging needs and interests, but both are in short supply in Houston.

Partisan divides impede immigrant rights

Houston has had Democratic mayors since 1982, and the city’s strong mayor form of government gives them a lot of power in local political affairs. However, on the city council—the city’s premier law-making institution—the balance of power continues to sway between Democrats and Republicans, though Democrats have gained ground in recent elections. Enacting new immigrant rights policies requires bipartisan support, which is not easily found in Houston where conservative councilmembers tend to support immigration enforcement over immigrant integration approaches.

These partisan divides are not easily overcome also because Houston’s governance has been called laissez-faire, with city officials on both sides of the aisle embracing a small government and low taxes ethos. This means they typically do not support sustained government interventions to promote economic and social equity, especially not for immigrants. At the same time, Houston is situated in the anti-immigrant state of Texas and a national policy landscape that is also enforcement centred. In all, Houston city officials receive few cues from higher levels of government that the promotion of immigrant rights could or should be a local priority.

The need for civil society collaborations

In other large U.S. gateway cities, local advances in immigrant rights have often been realised as a result of sustained advocacy by immigrant rights organisations, faith-based institutions, and labour unions. Houston, however, has relatively few such civil society organisations. In 2016, for example, Houston only counted 38 registered nonprofit organisations per 10,000 city residents, compared to 76 in San Francisco and 52 in Chicago. Houston is also located in a state with weak labour laws, and union density in the city is among the lowest in the country. Overall, Houston-area unions enjoy little political and policy influence and must contend with a well-organised and influential business sector.

The few immigrant rights wins that have been secured in Houston have had innovative collaborations of civil society organisations behind them. These wins include the city’s 2001 creation of an immigrant affairs office, city-coordinated naturalisation assistance and access to other critical immigration legal services, and the enactment of a 2013 local law to combat immigrant wage theft. In recent fights to improve immigrant labour conditions, immigrant rights and faith-based organisations have even managed to form rather strange bedfellow collaborations with key business leaders and organisations, often the quintessential foe in labour organising campaigns.

The role of cities in advancing immigrant rights

In all, Houston is key for underscoring that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to advancing immigrant rights across the United States and across immigrant-receiving communities. Local demographic, political, and civic contexts determine what immigrant rights policies and programs are demographically needed, practically viable, and politically expedient. Compared to other large U.S. gateway cities, Houston is key for showing how assorted civil society organisations have worked with each other, in collaborative and confrontational ways, to push reluctant city officials to slowly realise some important local advances in immigrant rights.

About the Author

Els de Graauw is Professor of Political Science at Baruch College-CUNY and Deputy Director of the M.A. Program in International Migration Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her co-authored book (with Shannon Gleeson) Advancing Immigrant Rights in Houston is in production with Temple University Press.

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