US appeals court upholds Texas' ban on 'sanctuary cities'
In Texas, the fight over a new law known as Senate Bill 4 has raged for more than a year
By Paul J. Weber
AUSTIN, Texas — A Texas immigration crackdown on "sanctuary cities" took effect Tuesday after a federal appeals court upheld a divisive law backed by the Trump administration that threatens elected officials with jail time and allows police officers to ask people during routine stops whether they're in the U.S. illegally.
The ruling was a blow to Texas' biggest cities —including Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — that sued last year to prevent enforcement of what opponents said is now the toughest state-level immigration measure on the books in the U.S.
But for the Trump administration, the decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans is a victory against measures seen as protecting immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California over its so-called sanctuary state law.
In Texas, the fight over a new law known as Senate Bill 4 has raged for more than a year, roiling the Republican-controlled Legislature and once provoking a near-fistfight between lawmakers in the state capitol. It set off racially-charged debates, backlash from big-city police chiefs and rebuke from the government in Mexico, which is Texas' largest trading partner and shares close ties to the state.
Since 2010, the Hispanic population in Texas has grown at a pace three times that of white residents.
"Allegations of discrimination were rejected. Law is in effect," Republican Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted after the ruling was published.
A major focal point of the Texas law is the requirement for local authorities to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, or risk jail time if they don't. Police chiefs, sheriffs and constables could also face removal from office for failing to comply with such federal "detainer" requests.
One sheriff Abbott had in his sights was Travis County's Sally Hernandez, an elected Democratic who runs Austin's jails. Last year, Hernandez announced on the day Donald Trump was sworn-in that her department would no longer comply with all detainer requests, a decision Republicans repeatedly pointed to in their defense of the measure.
"Words just can't express how disappointed I am with this ruling," Hernandez said. But she said her department would follow the law as directed by the courts.
The Texas law is often slammed by opponents as a near-copycat of Arizona's "Show Me Your Papers" law in 2010, but the two measures are not identical. Whereas the Arizona law originally required police to try to determine the immigration status of people during routine stops, the Texas bill doesn't instruct officers to ask.
U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones wrote in the court's opinion that the Arizona law — which was partially blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court — was more "problematic" because it mandated the questions during traffic stops. She added that no suspicion, reasonable or not, is required to ask questions off lawfully-detained individuals.
"It would be wrong to assume that SB4 authorizes unreasonable conduct where the statute's text does not require it," she said.
But the Texas law remains worse in "a lot of respects," said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped lead the lawsuit against SB4. He said they were still deciding their next steps following the ruling, which could include asking the full appeals court to reconsider. Until then, Gelernt said they will closely watch how Texas implements the law.
Police chiefs across Texas said the law will create a chilling effect that will cause immigrant families to not report crimes or come forward as witnesses over fears that talking to local police could lead to deportation. Critics also fear it will lead to the racial profiling of Hispanics and put officers in an untenable position.
Last year, Mexico's foreign ministry expressed concern that the law could trample on the rights of Mexican citizens who choose to live just across the border.
But the law was enthusiastically backed by the Trump administration, which had joined Texas in court to defend the measure. Sessions has blamed sanctuary city policies for crime and gang violence, and announced in July that cities and states could only receive certain grants if they cooperate with immigration agents.
Sessions is now targeting California, which passed sanctuary laws in response to the president's promises to ramp up the deportation of people in the U.S. illegally.