Photographer: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives
politics

Texas Anti-Sanctuary Law Mostly Survives Appeals Court Fight

Updated on
  • State can crack down on cities, law enforcement personnel
  • Trump administration backed Republican-led measure in Texas

Texas got permission from a federal appeals court to enforce much, but not all, of its controversial sanctuary-city ban. Cities, law enforcement personnel and elected officials must immediately begin to cooperate fully with the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration or face harsh penalties for resisting.

Tuesday’s ruling by three Republican-appointed judges at the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is a solid victory for the Trump administration, which helped defend Texas’s ban in court. The White House has been blocked by judges elsewhere in the country from taking away federal funding from cities that shelter undocumented immigrants, whom President Donald Trump has characterized as interlopers that take jobs and social services that rightfully belong to U.S. citizens.

An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer vowed to keep fighting the Texas law, possibly with an eventual appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Texas can threaten local politicians and law enforcement agents with removal, jail time and fines of up to $25,000 a day for failing to implement policies that support federal immigration efforts, according to the ruling. Texas towns, cities and college campuses must also roll back policies that protect undocumented immigrants or risk the same crippling fines. The appellate court ruled the state penalties violate constitutional free-speech protections only when applied to personal and political speech, not to politicians’ or law enforcement agents’ official positions.

Detainer Requests

Under the law, known as SB4, the state can also require municipalities and local law enforcement officials to automatically honor federal immigration requests for assistance, particularly requests to detain individuals suspected of being in the country illegally until federal agents can take custody -- except during times when an agency lacks the manpower or financial resources to comply.

Tuesday’s opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Edith H. Jones rejected the argument that immigration policy should be left to Congress, not the states.

“Federal law regulates how local entities may cooperate in immigration enforcement; SB4 specifies whether they cooperate,” Jones wrote for a unanimous panel. Local sanctuary-city “ordinances regulate whether and to what extend the local entities will participate in federal-local immigration enforcement cooperation. SB4 accomplishes the same goal on a state-wide level.”

A Tale of Two Sanctuary States in the Age of Trump

Local police in Texas can ask individuals detained in routine matters like traffic stops about their immigration status. Critics complain this so-called “show me your papers” provision will lead to racial profiling of U.S. citizens and law-abiding immigrants. Police chiefs and sheriffs also warn it will make communities less safe, as immigrants shy away from reporting crimes or serving as witnesses for fear of calling attention to themselves or family members.

Future Challengers

The ruling leaves the door open for future challengers, who will have to violate Texas’s ban and suffer consequences to gain the legal right to sue, the appellate judges said. At Nov. 7 oral arguments, the judges told lawyers they were concerned the harsh penalties could chill individuals’ constitutional right to speak out personally against the ban.

“We will be monitoring the situation on the ground closely,” Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “We are also pleased that the court narrowed the law in certain respects and accepted Texas’ critical concession that localities are free to decline ICE requests for assistance to preserve local resources.”

Texas’s law -- which goes several steps further than Trump’s plan to withhold federal funding from cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration policies -- was rammed through the Republican-controlled legislature in May despite loud protests by minority-rights groups, law enforcement officials, students and immigrants.

Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and several border communities sued to block the ban, which forbids mayors, sheriffs or police chiefs from prioritizing local law-enforcement concerns over federal immigration requests.

Mike Siegel, assistant city attorney in Austin and a Democratic candidate for Congress, tweeted that Tuesday’s ruling is a “terrible result.”

“We continue the struggle on two fronts: another court appeal, and the work to elect new representation in Congress,” he said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton defended the state’s sanctuary-city ban as necessary to protect citizens from criminal immigrants whose presence makes U.S. communities “more dangerous by the day.”

The Trump administration is waging a separate court battle to invalidate three laws in California that block local officials from complying with federal immigration directives. That case was filed March 6 in federal court in Sacramento, the state capital.

The case is City of El Cenizo v. Texas, 17-50762, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (New Orleans).

— With assistance by Kartikay Mehrotra, and Edvard Pettersson

(Updates with appeals court judge’s reasoning in seventh paragraph.)
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