Lawmakers and activists slammed a federal appeals court ruling allowing a hardline anti-immigration law to take effect in Texas.
A three-judge panel declared Tuesday evening that Senate Bill 4 (SB4), a law targeting so-called sanctuary cities, can go forward, seven months after it was meant to take effect. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed most of a ruling by a San Antonio judge who blocked the law from going into effect in August. While the appeals panel rejected one component of the law, which would have barred officials from endorsing policies curbing immigration crackdowns, the rest now stands.
“The plaintiffs have not made a showing that they are likely to succeed on the merits of any of their constitutional claims,” wrote Judge Edith H. Jones, in a ruling lauded by the Texas government.
“I’m pleased the 5th Circuit recognized that Senate Bill 4 is lawful, constitutional and protects the safety of law enforcement officers and all Texans,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. “Enforcing immigration law prevents the release of individuals from custody who have been charged with serious crimes. Dangerous criminals shouldn’t be allowed back into our communities to possibly commit more crimes.”
Activists decried the decision, as did a number of progressive lawmakers, who pointed to the wide-reaching ramifications of the law.
“Today, Texas families are calling on our local elected officials and law enforcement to take action to protect our families. The State of Texas has made clear that they will continue to use immigrant families as a pawn in divisive politics,” said Sam Robles of the Workers Defense Project in a statement.
State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), chairman for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House, also argued the legislation would immediately harm families.
“SB 4 will continue to jeopardize the safety of Texas communities by forcing our local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws instead of keeping families safe,” said Anchia. “From day one, this law was racially motivated for political gain against the will of local law enforcement and to the detriment of thousands of immigrants who work, live, and call Texas home.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed his disappointment and warned the law would “[break] down the trust” between officials and state residents.
“[W]e need to respond and act, within the law, to preserve as much of that trust as possible,” Adler said.
SB4 has sparked controversy across Texas, pitting virtually all of the Lone Star State’s major cities against the state government. Under SB4, law enforcement officials who fail to comply with federal immigration efforts face a Class A misdemeanor — leading to up to a year in prison and/or a $4,000 fine — and potentially a civil penalty ranging from $1,000 to up to $25,500 per day. Appointed and elected officials, meanwhile, could be removed from office.
The law is in keeping with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s hardline anti-immigration agenda, as well as a growing dispute between the state government and officials like Sheriff Sally Hernandez, who serves Travis County, home to the capital city of Austin. Around 35 percent of the city’s residents are Latinx; under the Obama administration, an escalation in raids and deportations soured relations between community members and law enforcement, something the election of President Trump has not eased.
While Austin is not officially a sanctuary city, Hernandez took office vowing to repair relations between police and immigrant communities, prioritizing safety in the area over identifying immigration status. That sat poorly with Abbott, who in turn singled out cities like Austin with SB4. Virtually all of the state’s urban areas filed suit to stop the law from taking effect, arguing it would hinder safety efforts and harm cities. Opponents say SB4 is a “show me your papers” law, one that violates the constitution.
Up until now, that argument has met with some measure of success. But Tuesday night’s ruling means the law goes forward — with stark implications for many Texans.
“[SB4 will] lead to abuse of power against Latinos and immigrants,” warned Anchia. “In fact, it likely means citizen’s civil rights will be violated before we can stop this unjust law in the courts.”
“We will continue to follow the law as provided to us by the courts in this matter, and we will rise to the challenge of keeping Travis County safe, although our ability to overcome fear and foster cooperation within the immigrant community is a greater challenge now,” said Hernandez, the Travis County sheriff.
But the fight isn’t over. Representatives from the the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) indicated they are weighing all options and will likely continue to challenge SB4 in court.
“We are exploring all legal options going forward. The court made clear that we remain free to challenge the manner in which the law is implemented, so we will be monitoring the situation on the ground closely. 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,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.
SB4 opponents acknowledged the setback, but urged Texans to continue their opposition to the law despite the ruling.
“This is not the first time we’ve had to detour through the 5th Circuit,” wrote State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) on Twitter. “[SB4] remains a harmful, hurtful and politically motivated law that we must continue to fight. It’s ok to be upset.”
“Get it out of your system,” he emphasized, “dust off, and get back to work.”