Houston-area development has become a right-wing lightning rod on immigration – Houston Public Media

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Gov. Greg Abbott said he will ask the state Legislature to address “serious concerns” about a rural subdivision in Liberty County that conservative media and the state Republican Party have accused of being a “magnet for illegal immigrants.”

Colony Ridge, a massive residential development north of Houston, has quickly taken center stage in Texas politics.

After weeks of reports in conservative media portraying the development as a “magnet for illegal immigrants,” followed by state Republican leaders expressing alarm, Gov. Greg Abbott has promised that Colony Ridge will be addressed in an upcoming special legislative session, saying “serious concerns have been raised.”

“We’re trying to put together as much information as possible so that I can add to the special session any issue that needs to be enforced in terms of a new law in the state of Texas, to make sure that we’re not going to have colonies like this in our state,” Abbott told radio host Dana Loesch on Monday.

The precise issues are unclear. Abbott suggested he is worried Colony Ridge has become a “no-go zone” where the state’s ban on “sanctuary cities” is not being enforced. But legal experts say there is no law against selling land to people who aren’t citizens and many of the more outlandish claims about the neighborhood have been accompanied with little or no evidence.

Abbott also said the state has issued subpoenas to the developers “to find out what’s going on financially.” And he said state environmental regulators are investigating Colony Ridge and will issue a report.

The development company, Terranos Houston, has dismissed suggestions that Colony Ridge is a haven for people in the country illegally as “slanderous” and “unsubstantiated.” Developer William Trey Harris, a major campaign donor to Abbott, told local media this week he is “a little disappointed in our state government that they are taking action based on lies and gossip.”

That has not curbed growing interest from state GOP leaders. Attorney General Ken Paxton has said his office is looking into Colony Ridge, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick toured the development by air Monday. Patrick also spoke with Harris and said it is clear “they do not have enough manpower to patrol this area, which has grown at an unprecedented speed.”

The development, located in rural Liberty County about 30 miles north of Houston, is comprised of multiple subdivisions. According to a column that Patrick wrote after his fly-over, the developer told Patrick that the development covers nearly 33,000 acres and is home to about 10,000 people.

Last weekend, the State Republican Executive Committee, the governing body of the Texas GOP, passed a resolution calling for action on Colony Ridge, including legislation to “prevent further settlement of illegal aliens” there.

The upcoming special session is expected to start in mid-October, though Abbott has not released the exact date or agenda yet.

Harris, the developer, is a prominent Republican donor, particularly to the governor. He has given over $1 million to Abbott’s campaigns and also contributed to local politicians such as state Sen. Brandon Creighton and state Rep. William Metcalf, both of Conroe.

Allison Tirres, law professor at DePaul University and visiting professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, said it’s been “a longstanding practice” to sell property to people regardless of their immigration status in the U.S.

“Of course the Texas Legislature might try to pass a law that would ban sales to those without legal status, but it would likely be declared unconstitutional,” she said. “Bottom line is that states generally have wide latitude to regulate property laws within the state, but those laws cannot violate the Constitution, nor can they interfere or conflict with federal immigration law and policy.”

She said undocumented people don’t need a Social Security number to purchase property and can instead get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which was created by the Internal Revenue Service in 1996 to allow immigrants who don’t qualify for a Social Security number to file their taxes.

Kathleen Campbell Walker, an El Paso immigration lawyer and the former president and general counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said no state or federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from purchasing homes or land in the U.S.

She said cities across the country have tried to prevent undocumented immigrants from renting apartments or buying homes, and those ordinances have repeatedly been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. Under the law, Walker said, there is no difference between a foreign investor and an undocumented immigrant buying property in Texas.

“If foreign nationals can acquire property sitting in their living room in London or sitting in their kitchen in Shanghai, [immigration] status doesn’t have a darn thing to do with it,” she said.

In 2006, the city council in Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, approved a series of ordinances that would have prevented landlords from renting homes or apartments to undocumented immigrants. In July 2013, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled the ordinances unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case after the city appealed.

That same year, Hazelton, Pennsylvania, passed a similar ordinance. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the law was illegal.

In 2014, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals let stand a Fremont, Nebraska, ordinance that required prospective renters to disclose their immigration status. If they can’t prove they’re in the country legally, the landlord can’t rent to that person under the ordinance.

The law remains in effect, but the state lacked the resources to enforce it, according to a 2014 news article on Nebraska Public Media.

César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration attorney and law professor at Ohio State University, said such laws are not new in U.S. history. For example, he said, in the early 20th Century, various states approved what were dubbed alien land laws that prohibited some Asian immigrants from owning or leasing property, sometimes based on their immigration status.

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s alien land laws violated the rights of a Japanese immigrant whose farm was seized by the state because he was not a U.S. citizen. The ruling has been used as precedent in lawsuits challenging whether immigrants, regardless of status, can own land or property in the U.S.

Florida recently passed a law preventing Chinese nationals from buying land in the state, arguing that it was necessary for national security. García Hernández said this and similar laws are based on false narratives about immigrants.

“These are laws or proposed laws that target migrants based on flimsy claims of promoting safety or security,” he said. “I can’t get into the minds of their supporters, but the history of laws that restrict property ownership by migrants is riddled with repugnant claims that migrants are undesirable members of our communities.”

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