Texas sanctuary city law upheld on appeal in federal court

We’ve been watching the progress of Senate Bill 4 (SB-4) ever since it passed in Texas and was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott. That’s the sanctuary city law which seeks to bolster cooperation between immigration enforcement and state and local law enforcement. It also provides provisions to punish noncompliant jurisdictions in so-called sanctuary cities. As soon as it was passed, the law was challenged in court by several cities, along with the ACLU and other groups. In August, a U.S. District Judge placed a hold on several provisions of the legislation.

The state appealed and now the next round of legal battles has ended. A panel of judges from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction on all but one of the provisions of the law and said that it could go into effect while the appeals play out. (Texas Tribune)

A panel of three U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled Tuesday that most of the state’s immigration enforcement legislation, Senate Bill 4, can remain in effect while the case plays out, handing a victory to Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican supporters of the law.

As passed, Senate Bill 4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation — in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

While not expressly mandating that every LEO in the state cooperate with all immigration enforcement action, the law stops any locale from forbidding such cooperation. Even more aggressively, it contains provisions for punishment of elected officials and municipal officers who attempt to thwart the efforts of ICE and other immigration enforcement agencies. This decision leaves all of those provisions in place and allows them to be enforced immediately.

In fact, the only part of the law which is still on hold is a relatively minor bit which may come down to a difference of opinion over semantics and questions of free speech. One part of the law “punishes local officials for ‘adopting, enforcing or endorsing’ policies that specifically prohibit or limit enforcement of immigration laws.” The court didn’t even rule all of that out, but took exception with the word “endorse.” That does seem reasonable to me. Simply endorsing a policy doesn’t put it into effect or impact the lives of citizens. It’s free speech. Putting a gag on local officials who disagree with state policy is no way to run a government, so that portion of it may have to go.

All in all, this is good news for Texas. This fight will play out in states around the nation until the Supreme Court finally weighs in on these questions. Having a few cases like this in the hopper as precedent should make it easier for the Supremes to eventually find that immigration enforcement remains the responsibility of the federal government and it can’t be hindered by local officials. Further, cooperation with federal law enforcement shouldn’t be mandatory, but it should also not be expressly forbidden.