Feb 29, 2024 - World

Federal judge temporarily halts Texas law allowing state arrests of immigrants

Migrants wait in the rain after turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing over from Mexico in Fronton, Texas, on May 12, 2023. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday temporarily put on hold a Texas law that would allow local authorities and judges to arrest and deport immigrants suspected of illegally crossing the U.S. border.

Why it matters: Civil rights groups and the Department of Justice, who together sued to stop the law from going into effect on March 5, say it is unconstitutional and could lead to racial profiling.

  • Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to take the battle to the U.S. Supreme Court. He said the state will appeal Thursday's decision.

Catch up fast: The sweeping law, known as SB 4, makes it a state misdemeanor to illegally cross the border and a second-degree felony for illegal re-entry, with punishments ranging from 180 days in jail to 20 years in prison.

  • It also permits a judge to order an undocumented person "to return to the foreign nation from which they entered."
  • Abbott, who has sharply criticized the Biden administration over its handling of a massive influx of immigrants at the southern border, signed the SB 4 into law on Dec. 18.

The ACLU on behalf of the El Paso County government and others sued the next day, saying the law is "patently illegal" because only the federal government has the authority to enforce immigration laws.

  • The DOJ filed its own lawsuit, but ended up joining the one filed by the civil rights groups.
  • Proponents of the law say it will empower local law enforcement to target those who have crossed the border illegally, not people who are in the state with authorization.

What they're saying: Judge David Ezra, who issued the order, cited several factors for his decision, including the the Constitution's supremacy clause and Supreme Court precedent, which he said affirmed "that states may not exercise immigration enforcement power except as authorized by the federal government."

  • He also said the law "conflicts with key provisions of federal immigration law, to the detriment of the United States' foreign relations and treaty obligations."
  • He added that "surges in immigration do not constitute an "invasion" within the meaning of the Constitution, nor is Texas engaging in war by enforcing the law.

The ACLU, as well as Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center other plaintiffs called Thursday's decision a victory.

  • "This is a win for Texas values, human rights, and the Constitution," the ACLU of Texas said on social media.
  • Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center's Jennifer Babaie said that with Thursday's decision "the court sent a clear message to Texas: S.B. 4 is unconstitutional and criminalizing Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant communities will not be tolerated."

The other side: Abbott in a statement after the decision vowed to appeal, saying Texas “will not back down in our fight to protect our state — and our nation — from President Biden’s border crisis.”

  • He added that the state “has a right to defend itself because of President Biden’s ongoing failure to his duty to protect our state from the invasion at our southern border.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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