Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Texas’s Harsh Sanctuary-City Ban Blocked by Federal Judge

  • State can’t use sanctuary ban to jail sheriffs, fine cities
  • Immigration advocates claim Texas law one-upped Trump

Texas can’t punish so-called sanctuary cities, after a federal judge temporarily blocked a measure that would have let Texas’s Republican leadership jail sheriffs and fine towns for failing to fully cooperate with U.S. immigration policies.

The state is expected to appeal to try to reinstate the law, which was set to take effect Friday.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio refused on Wednesday to approve provisions that threaten local officials with firing or up to a year in jail and municipalities with fines of up to $25,500 a day for failing to fall in line with Texas Republican lawmakers’ goal to step up immigration enforcement.

QuickTake Why 'Sanctuary Cities' Are a Target for Trump

The judge also questioned provisions of the law, called Senate Bill 4, that could lead officials to illegally detaining U.S. citizens or seizing lawful immigrants who aren’t accused of any crimes.

“There is overwhelming evidence by local officials, including local law enforcement, that SB 4 will erode public trust and make many communities and neighborhoods less safe,” Garcia said in a 94-page decision. “There is also ample evidence that localities will suffer adverse economic consequences which, in turn, harm the state of Texas.”

Many Texas mayors, county officials and police chiefs warned the law would worsen public safety by frightening immigrants into not reporting crimes or seeking medical care. They also complained it punished public officials for expressing their opinions or adopting policies that discourage local officers from acting as immigration agents without supervision.

The ban, which also applies to university officials and campus police, lacked concrete standards for measuring compliance, opponents complained. That left it up to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton -- a Tea Party Republican -- to decide whether a city or official should be charged with a violation.

‘Draconian Penalties’

“The draconian penalties were undoubtedly intended to ensure that local officials would engage in immigration enforcement full-tilt,” Lee Gelernt and Luis Roberto Vera, lawyers representing the border town of El Cenizo, the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens said in court filings.

If implemented as written, the law would turn Texas police and deputies into a “rump federal enforcement force” through “mass deputization” of local officers, Collyn Peddie, Houston’s assistant city attorney, told Garcia at a June 26 hearing. The Trump administration “can’t substitute local people shanghaied by the state” to avoid hiring enough federal agents to enforce its national immigration goals, she said.

Detainer Requests

The crux of the conflict is a provision ordering local peace officers to automatically honor U.S. immigration requests to detain suspected undocumented individuals who aren’t accused of crimes. Honoring detainer requests is presently voluntary under federal law. In a different Texas immigration-rights case, Garcia ruled these detainers are unconstitutional in some circumstances.

“The court was right to strike down virtually all of this patently unconstitutional law,” said Gelernt, the ACLU attorney. “Senate Bill 4 would have led to rampant discrimination and made communities less safe. That’s why police chiefs and mayors themselves were among its harshest critics -- they recognized it would harm, not help, their communities.”

Judge Garcia said Texas was within its rights, at this stage of the litigation, to let officers ask individuals detained for minor offenses like traffic stops or jaywalking about their immigration status. But in partially upholding the controversial “show me your papers” provision, the judge cautioned local officials not to detain people just because they are suspected of being undocumented immigrants and to avoid prolonging detentions “in order to further investigate the individual’s immigration status or to hold them for federal authorities.”

Once the initial stop is carried out, he said, “the officer is required to release the individual, regardless of whether he suspects or even knows that the individual is undocumented.” Going beyond that violates the person’s constitutional rights, Garcia said.

Texas contends its law will get potentially violent criminals off the streets and “stop local officials from frustrating cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials,” according to filings.

The Texas sanctuary city ban “was passed by the Texas Legislature to set a statewide policy of cooperation with federal immigration authorities enforcing our nation’s immigration laws,” Paxton said in an emailed statement late Wednesday. He vowed to continue fighting to reinstate the law in appellate court because “Texas has the sovereign authority and responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens.”

Texas’s lawyers warned Garcia, a Clinton appointee, against substituting his own preferences for choices made by the Texas Legislature, which is overwhelmingly Republican. They also claimed Congress never “suggested that states cannot rein in their local officials who seek to impede cooperation with the federal government.”

‘Free to Ignore’

“At the end of the day, the Legislature is free to ignore the pleas of city and county officials, along with local police departments, who are in the trenches and neighborhoods enforcing the law on a daily and continuing basis,” Garcia wrote in Wednesday’s ruling. “The depth and reservoir of knowledge and experience possessed by local officials can be ignored. The court cannot and does not second guess the Legislature. However, the state may not exercise its authority in a manner that violates the United States Constitution.”

Garcia rejected Texas’s suggestion to address concerns about the legality of the ban by trimming out a few words or concepts. At the June 26 hearing, Texas’s lawyers repeatedly suggested activists were over-reacting, and they assured Garcia the state wouldn’t take the draconian actions opponents feared.

Each time, Garcia responded by asking Texas’s lawyers where those assurances were spelled out in the statute. They couldn’t point to anything.

“That can’t be the way the law works when the penalties are so severe,” the ACLU’s Gelernt told Garcia.

Trump administration attorneys urged Garcia to uphold Texas’s ban, which goes further than the White House’s plan to yank federal funding from sanctuary cities that “prevent or hinder the enforcement” of federal immigration law. On July 21, a San Francisco federal judge refused to lift a temporary order blocking the national sanctuary-city ban from taking effect.

The Justice Department offered no opinion on Texas’s harsh penalties, which aren’t mirrored in Trump’s proposal. They said the White House believes Texas has the right to do whatever it wants in that regard.

“Texas, like other states, has authority as a sovereign to regulate as it sees fit within its borders, including by regulating its subdivisions, as it has done here,” federal attorneys said in court papers.

The case is City of El Cenizo vs. Texas, 5:17-cv-00404, U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas (San Antonio).

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