Judge blocks Texas law allowing police power to arrest illegal migrants

Feb 29, 2024, 3:25 PM

FILE: Seen from an aerial view, people pass through razor wire after crossing the U.S.-Mexico borde...

FILE: Seen from an aerial view, people pass through razor wire after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border into El Paso, Texas on February 01, 2024 from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. After crossing the Rio Grande, immigrants must pass through the wire, set by Texas National Guard troops, before they are allowed to proceed for processing by U.S. Border Patrol agents. (John Moore/Getty Images)

(John Moore/Getty Images)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday blocked a new Texas law that would give police broad powers to arrest migrants suspected of illegally entering the U.S., dealing a victory to the Biden administration with a broad rejection of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s immigration enforcement effort.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra’s preliminary injunction pausing a law that was set to take effect March 5 came as President Joe Biden and his likely Republican challenger in November, Donald Trump, were visiting Texas’ southern border to discuss immigration.

The state attorney general’s office immediately appealed the ruling, according to a statement Thursday.

The ruling rebuked Texas’ immigration enforcement effort on multiple fronts, brushing off claims by Republicans about an ongoing “invasion” along the southern border due to record-high illegal crossings. Ezra also said the law violates the Constitution’s supremacy clause, conflicts with federal immigration law, and could hamper U.S. foreign relations and treaty obligations.

It is the second time in six months that Ezra has stopped one of Abbott’s border escalations, having also ruled against a floating barrier Texas erected in the Rio Grande.

Allowing Texas to “permanently supersede federal directives” due to a so-called invasion would “amount to nullification of federal law and authority — a notion that is antithetical to the Constitution and has been unequivocally rejected by federal courts since the Civil War,” the judge wrote.

Opponents have called the Texas measure the most dramatic attempt by a state to police immigration since a 2010 Arizona law that opponents derided as the “show me your papers” bill. The U.S. Supreme Court partially struck down the Arizona law, but some Texas Republicans want that ruling to get a second look.

In his decision, Ezra wrote that the Texas law was preempted by the decision in the Arizona case, adding that the two laws had “striking similarities.” He also struck down state officials’ claims that large numbers of illegal border crossings constitute an “invasion,” saying calling it such is a novel interpretation of the Constitution’s invasion clause and that allowing the law to stand would be permitting the state to engage in war.

Although some may empathize with Texas officials’ claims regarding the federal government’s handling of immigration policy, it is not an excuse to violate the Constitution, the judge wrote.

In a statement, Abbott blamed the influx of migrants on Biden and said “we will not back down in our fight to protect our state — and our nation.”

“Texas has the right to defend itself because of President Biden’s ongoing failure to fulfill his duty to protect our state from the invasion at our southern border,” he wrote, noting that he believes the case will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court.

Civil rights groups who sued the state have argued that if allowed to stand, the law — Senate Bill 4 — could lead to civil rights violations and racial profiling. They released a joint statement celebrating the decision.

“With today’s decision, the court sent a clear message to Texas: S.B. 4 is unconstitutional and criminalizing Black, Brown, Indigenous, and immigrant communities will not be tolerated,” said Jennifer Babaie, director of advocacy and legal services with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center.

The Biden administration’s lawsuit over the law is one several legal battles between it and Texas over how far the state can go to try to prevent migrants from crossing the border.

Under the rejected law, state law enforcement officers could arrest people suspected of entering the country illegally. Once in custody, they could agree to a Texas judge’s order to leave the country or face a misdemeanor charge for entering the U.S. illegally. Migrants who don’t leave after being ordered to do so could be arrested again and charged with a more serious felony.

Texas has been arresting migrants for years under a more limited program based on arrests for criminal trespassing.

At a Feb. 15 hearing, Ezra expressed skepticism as the state pleaded its case. Ezra, who was appointed by former President Ronald Reagan, said he feared the U.S. could become a confederation of states enforcing their own immigration laws. In his ruling, he doubled down on the thought, adding that “SB4 threatens the fundamental notion that the United States must regulate immigration with one voice.”

Republicans who back the law have said it would not target immigrants already living in the U.S. because of the two-year statute of limitations on the illegal entry charge and would be enforced only along the state’s border with Mexico.

Other Republican governors have expressed support for Abbott, who has said the federal government is not doing enough to enforce immigration laws.

Among other things, Texas placed the floating barrier in the Rio Grande, put razor wire along the U.S.-Mexico border and stopped Border Patrol agents from accessing a riverfront park in Eagle Pass that they previously used to process migrants.

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Judge blocks Texas law allowing police power to arrest illegal migrants