Draconian immigration law in Texas halted as state reels from Harvey

Activists and city officials hailed the decision to stop SB4, but the fight isn't over yet.

Protesters gather outside the Federal Courthouse to oppose a new Texas "sanctuary cities" bill that aligns with the president's tougher stance on illegal immigration, Monday, June 26, 2017, in San Antonio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
Protesters gather outside the Federal Courthouse to oppose a new Texas "sanctuary cities" bill that aligns with the president's tougher stance on illegal immigration, Monday, June 26, 2017, in San Antonio. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

A U.S. district judge ruled late Wednesday night that a controversial anti-immigrant bill in Texas could not take effect on Friday, giving relief to millions of residents in a state still reeling from the ramifications of a devastating hurricane.

“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,” wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, in reference to Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a bill targeting so-called sanctuary cities.

SB4, which would require local law enforcement to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has been called a “show me your papers” bill by advocates who say SB4 is unconstitutional. Under the law, officials refusing to comply with ICE could face a Class A misdemeanor (punishable by up to a $4,000 fine and potential prison time up to a year), additional fines, and possible removal from elected or appointed office.

After Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed the law in May, Attorney General Ken Paxton preemptively filed a lawsuit asking for SB4 to be declared constitutional in advance of its September 1 implementation date. But activists and officials across the state responded swiftly— all of the state’s major cities, including Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas, sued Texas, as did numerous organizations. Mass protests also broke out, many of which dominated this summer’s special session of the Texas legislature.

Those efforts were rewarded, first in early August, when a judge denied Paxton’s request to prematurely declare the law constitutional, and again on Wednesday with Garcia’s decision. State officials and activists greeted the latest news with elation and gratitude, offering praise for the grassroots efforts powering opposition to SB4.

“Thanks to this federal court ruling, the State of Texas’ discriminatory law has been stopped in its tracks. I’m grateful for Judge Garcia’s fair and just ruling, but most of all, I’m thankful for everyone who has fought Senate Bill 4 every step of the way,” said Austin City Council Member Greg Casar.

Abbott has directly targeted Casar’s city, which is located in Travis County, over the rhetoric of Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez. Hernandez promised to cease full cooperation with ICE when she took office earlier this year, sparking a heated back-and-forth with Abbott. SB4 was seen by many as a response to Hernandez and officials like her — something made evident by the governor’s response to Wednesday’s ruling.

In a written statement, Abbott slammed Garcia’s decision, claiming the ruling would lead to a crime spree across the state.

“Today’s decision makes Texas’ communities less safe,” said Abbott. “Because of this ruling, gang members and dangerous criminals, like those who have been released by the Travis County Sheriff, will be set free to prey upon our communities.”

Abbott vowed to appeal the ruling, as did Paxton. “Senate Bill 4 was passed by the Texas Legislature to set a statewide policy of cooperation with federal immigration authorities enforcing our nation’s immigration laws,” said the attorney general in a statement. “Texas has the sovereign authority and responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. We’re confident SB 4 will ultimately be upheld as constitutional and lawful.”

Others had very different reactions. An audience at an immigration forum in Irving, Texas, erupted with applause when a speaker announced Garcia’s decision in Spanish:

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, whose city is currently grappling with Hurricane Harvey, one the worst storms in U.S. history, also greeted the news.

“Happy to learn a federal judge blocked the Texas law aimed at making local police immigration enforcers,” Turner wrote on Twitter. “Need them for fighting local crime.”

But some also noted that the fight isn’t over. Garcia’s ruling lets some of SB4 stand, including a portion allowing law enforcement to ask about the immigration status of those they detain. That reality, along with signaling from Abbott that legal battles over SB4 will continue, is leading officials and activists to taper their reactions.

“The battle is far from over. Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton will likely try to appeal today’s ruling,” Casar said. “We know we have a long way to go to protect everyone’s rights from the constant attacks by the Trump and Abbott administrations.”

While SB4 opponents are preparing for a prolonged fight, many expressed relief over the timing of Garcia’s ruling.

“We especially appreciate that the decision will provide much needed temporary relief for Latino and immigrant communities as they and millions of Texans struggle to deal with Hurricane Harvey,” said Carlos Duarte, Texas state director for Mi Familia Vota. Many Texans were afraid to evacuate Houston and the wider Gulf Coast because of potential ICE checkpoints and the threat of detention and deportation. Even the news of Garcia’s ruling may not reach many vulnerable communities impacted by the storm, something that could further imperil efforts to evacuate residents in danger.

What has happened during Harvey alone is proof that SB4 would be devastating for Texas, said Efrén C. Olivares, Racial and Economic Justice Program Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. 

“We don’t have to look far to see the real-life effects of this anti-immigrant law. Instead of focusing on their safety, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their families in Houston’s rising flood waters worried about facing deportation,” Olivares said in a statement.

“Thanks to the efforts of Houston officials and the police department, the fears were quickly addressed,” he continued. “But this should never happen in the first place.”