Judge blocks controversial Texas law allowing police to target migrants for arrest

By Uriel J. Garcia, The Texas Tribune
A federal judge on Thursday barred Texas from enforcing a controversial immigration law that would have allowed police to target migrants for arrest whom they suspect had entered the country illegally. File Photo by Mark Otte/Texas Army National Guard/UPI
A federal judge on Thursday barred Texas from enforcing a controversial immigration law that would have allowed police to target migrants for arrest whom they suspect had entered the country illegally. File Photo by Mark Otte/Texas Army National Guard/UPI | License Photo

March 1 (UPI) -- A federal judge in Austin on Thursday halted a new state law that would allow Texas police to arrest people suspected of crossing the Texas-Mexico border illegally.

The law, Senate Bill 4, was scheduled to take effect Tuesday. U.S. District Judge David Ezra issued a preliminary injunction that will keep it from being enforced while a court battle continues playing out. Texas is being sued by the federal government and several immigration advocacy organizations. Texas appealed the ruling to the conservative Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.


Ezra said in his order Thursday that the federal government "will suffer grave irreparable harm" if the law took effect because it could inspire other states to pass their own immigration laws, creating an inconsistent patchwork of rules about immigration, which has historically been upheld as being solely within the jurisdiction of the federal government.


"S.B. 4 threatens the fundamental notion that the United States must regulate immigration with one voice," Ezra wrote.

Ezra also wrote that if the state arrested and deported migrants who may be eligible for political asylum, that would violate the Constitution and also be "in violation of U.S. treaty obligations."

"Finally, the court does not doubt the risk that cartels and drug trafficking pose to many people in Texas," Ezra wrote in his ruling. "But as explained, Texas can and does already criminalize those activities. Nothing in this order stops those enforcement efforts. No matter how emphatic Texas' criticism of the Federal government's handling of immigration on the border may be to some, disagreement with the federal government's immigration policy does not justify a violation of the Supremacy Clause."

Gov. Greg Abbott signed S.B. 4 in December, marking Texas' latest attempt to try to deter people from crossing the Rio Grande after several years of historic numbers of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border.

In a statement, Abbott said the state "will not back down in our fight" and that he expects this case would eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. On social media, he wrote that he is "not worried" because "this was fully expected."


"Texas has solid legal grounds to defend against an invasion," he added.

State Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose office is defending S.B. 4 in court, said in a statement that he "will do everything possible to defend Texas' right to defend herself."

The law seeks to make illegally crossing the border a Class B misdemeanor, carrying a punishment of up to six months in jail. Repeat offenders could face a second-degree felony with a punishment of two to 20 years in prison.

The law also seeks to require state judges to order migrants returned to Mexico if they are convicted; local law enforcement would be responsible for transporting migrants to the border. A judge could drop the charges if a migrant agrees to return to Mexico voluntarily.

In December, ​​the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project sued Texas on behalf of El Paso County and two immigrant rights organizations -- El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center and Austin-based American Gateways -- over the new state law. The following month, the U.S. Department of Justice filed its lawsuit against Texas. The lawsuits have since been combined.


During a court hearing on Feb. 15 in Austin, the Department of Justice argued that S.B. 4 is unconstitutional because courts have ruled that immigration solely falls under the federal government's authority.

The lawyer representing Texas, Ryan Walters, argued that the high number of migrants arriving at the border -- some of them smuggled by drug cartels -- constitutes an invasion and Texas has a right to defend itself under Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from engaging in war on their own "unless actually invaded."

Ezra said that he "is not unsympathetic to the concerns raised by Abbott," but appeared unconvinced by Walters' argument.

"I haven't seen, and the state of Texas can't point me to any type of military invasion in Texas," Ezra said. "I don't see evidence that Texas is at war."

Immigrant rights advocates around the state celebrated the ruling because they worried that S.B. 4 would lead to border residents' rights being violated.

"We celebrate today's win, blocking this extreme law from going into effect before it has the opportunity to harm Texas communities," said Aron Thorn, senior attorney for the Beyond Border Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. "This is a major step in showing the State of Texas and Gov. Abbott that they do not have the power to enforce unconstitutional, state-run immigration policies."


Edna Yang, co-executive director at American Gateways, said that S.B. 4 does not fix "our broken immigration system" and it will divide communities.

"This decision is a victory for all our communities as it stops a harmful, unconstitutional and discriminatory state policy from taking effect and impacting the lives of millions of Texans," she said. "Local officials should not be federal immigration agents, and our state should not be creating its own laws that deny people their right to seek protection here in the U.S."

David Donatti, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said the ruling is an "important win for Texas values, human rights, and the U.S. Constitution."

"Our current immigration system needs repair because it forces millions of Americans into the shadows and shuts the door on people in need of safety. S.B. 4 would only make things worse," he said. "Cruelty to migrants is not a policy solution."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. Read the original here. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans -- and engages with them -- about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


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