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Texas’ immigration-enforcement law again kept on hold by federal appeals court

Migrants wait to climb over concertina wire after they crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP
Migrants wait to climb over concertina wire after they crossed the Rio Grande and entered the U.S. from Mexico, Sept. 23, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.

A panel of federal judges has kept Texas’ immigration enforcement law that empowers local and state police to arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally on hold as litigation on the measure continues.

The Biden administration, El Paso County and a group of immigrant rights groups sued to block the law, known as Senate Bill 4, which also empowers local judges to order a migrant to return to Mexico regardless of the person’s nationality.

Late Tuesday's decision by the three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals comes after the law was briefly allowed to go into effect last Tuesday, March 19, by the U.S. Supreme Court – only to be halted hours later.

The appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments April 3 on the legality of SB 4. The case’s ultimate resolution could be decided later by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton – all Republicans – have argued the law is necessary due to what they say are President Joe Biden's border policies that have led to a record number of asylum seekers entering the United States through Texas.

Opponents have argued in court that SB 4 is unconstitutional because immigration enforcement is the duty of the federal government, not individual states. They also argue the law will lead to racial profiling as it’s unclear what probable cause police will have to question a person living in Texas about their status.

 In the decision, Judge Priscilla Richman wrote of the court’s decision that the Supreme Court has held for more than 150 years that immigration enforcement – including the entry admission and removal of people – was the federal government’s duty.

“Despite this fundamental axiom, S. B. 4 creates separate, distinct state criminal offenses and related procedures regarding unauthorized entry of noncitizens into Texas from outside the country and their removal,” wrote Richman, who was appointed by George W. Bush.

The ruling also notes that the Texas law conflicts with the United States’ authority to choose where to deport undocumented immigrants and could cause “international friction.”

“A large number of noncitizens who crossed into Texas from Mexico are not citizen or residents of Mexico. Nevertheless, under Texas law they would be removed to Mexico. The United States would have no voice in the matter,” the opinion states.

Richman also noted Mexico’s opposition to the Texas law.

The Mexican government earlier this month filed a brief urging the court to keep the law blocked, arguing that enforcement of SB4 would sour the bilateral relationship between the countries.

The El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the decision is the “first step towards securing accountability for the state of Texas for risking the health, safety, and standards of Texas residents.”

 “[The] decision is not the end of this legal battle, and immigrants and Texans of color across our state should remain vigilant, know their rights, and have a plan to protect themselves and their families. We will not stop fighting until this law is struck down for good,” Jennifer Babaie, the director of advocacy and legal services at Las Americas said in a statement.

The Texas Attorney General's office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.

The appeals court decision comes as tensions have escalated on some parts of the Texas-Mexico border.

Last week a group of migrants barreled past razor wire and temporary fencing installed in El Paso as part of Gov. Greg Abbott's controversial border mission, Operation Lone Star.

A Department of Homeland Security official said between 400 and 600 migrants passed through the opening. They were subsequently apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents and detained pending further processing.

Copyright 2024 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom