Federal Judge Blocks Most of Texas’ Anti-Sanctuary Cities Law

Hundreds of protesters gather on the south steps of the state Capitol in Austin, Texas, Monday, May 29, 2017, the last day of the legislative session, to protest Senate Bill 4. (Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas (CN) – A federal judge in San Antonio ruled that several provisions of a Texas law that prohibits sanctuary cities and punishes local officials with jail time and removal from office for refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officers are likely unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday to several Texas cities, counties, local officials and social justice groups that sued the state to block Senate Bill 4, which was slated to go into effect Friday.

The bill, which was one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s “emergency items” during this summer’s special legislative session, allows local law enforcement to question the immigration status of any “lawfully detained” person, including people stopped for minor offenses such as jaywalking or running a stop sign.

The bill would punish local officials and entities that adopt, enforce or endorse any policy that “materially limits” the enforcement of immigration laws. State and local government officials, including campus police, who violate the law would be subject to Class A misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to a year in jail and fines of $25,000 a day, and they could also be removed from office.

In his 94-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Judge Garcia said that the best interests of the public would be served by “preserving the status quo” and enjoining the portions of SB 4 that, on their face, are preempted by federal law and violate the U.S. Constitution.

“The balance of equities, which explores the relative harms to the parties, tips heavily in plaintiffs’ favor,” Garcia said. “The State asserts that it has an interest in implementing and enforcing its enacted laws, but the protection of constitutional rights is paramount.”

The judge added, “As the State concedes, local jurisdictions have been cooperating with federal immigration authorities for decades. Local cooperation, under the rubric of federal law, will not change. But the mandates, prohibitions, penalties, and sanctions under SB 4 impose substantial burdens on local entities that are not imposed under federal law.”

Garcia said that the burden on the state if SB 4 is not implemented and enforced in its entirety on Sept.1 “does not even remotely compare” with the burdens that SB4 would impose on local entities.

In a statement Thursday, Gov. Abbott said the judge’s decision makes “Texas’ communities less safe.”

“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 said.

But throughout the 140-day regular legislative session that ended in May, opponents of the measure, including several police chiefs and sheriffs, told lawmakers that SB 4 would make communities less safe by making immigrants distrustful of police and reluctant to report crimes.

Garcia said in the ruling that there is “overwhelming evidence” to support that view, in addition to ample evidence that parts of the state would suffer adverse economic consequences if the law were to take effect.

The judge said that, at the end of the day, the Legislature is “free to ignore the pleas of city and county officials, along with local police departments, who are in the trenches and neighborhoods enforcing the law on a daily and continuing basis.”

“The depth and reservoir of knowledge and experience possessed by local officials can be ignored. The Court cannot and does not second guess the Legislature,” Garcia said. “However, the State may not exercise its authority in a manner that violates the United States Constitution.”

The judge ruled that several provisions of SB 4 are likely unconstitutional, and that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on many, though not all, of their challenges to the law.

Garcia said that the overbreadth of SB 4’s endorsement prohibition — which punishes any official who speaks or acts in a way that opposes policies set forth by the law — likely violates the First Amendment.

“SB 4 permits speech on one side of the immigration policy debate, but not the other,” he wrote. “The First Amendment was meant to protect against this type of viewpoint discrimination.”

He said the law is so broad that even a wink or a nod could be construed as an endorsement.

Garcia said the state’s ‘meager effort” to defend the endorsement ban rings hollow, and that Texas did not offer any viable suggestions as to how the ban could be narrowly construed and applied in a constitutional manner.

“The State has suggested that perhaps the Court could just strike the word ‘endorse’ from SB 4 to avoid any First Amendment violations,” Garcia said. “However, the problem is not that simple and the Court cannot rewrite a law to conform it to constitutional requirements.”

Garcia said that “free and open debate on matters of public concern is a cornerstone of democracy and the core value protected by the First Amendment.”

“Local officials are well informed on how SB 4 and the enforcement of immigration laws affect local practice and policy, and must be able to speak out freely on such issues without fear of penalty, reprisal, retaliation, and/or removal from office,” the judge wrote. “Censoring officials would disserve the public interest and create a serious disconnect between local officials and the communities they serve.”

The judge also ruled that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claims that the provisions of SB 4 requiring local entities to fulfill all Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests would violate the Fourth Amendment.

The detainer provision of SB 4 requires local law enforcement to hold the subject of a federal detainer request for up to 48 hours.

“Defendants have not identified any provision of law within the [Immigration and Nationality Act], Texas statute, or some other legal authority that authorizes the local officials subject to SB 4 to arrest and detain for civil immigration violations, or to assess probable cause of removability,” Garcia said.

The judge did not block the provision of the law that allows local law enforcement to inquire into the immigration status of “lawfully detained” individuals.

He said the provision does not authorize local officers to make arrests or prolong detentions in order to investigate a person’s immigration status.

“SB 4’s immigration status inquiry provision does not create an independent ground for conducting a stop,” Garcia said. “Therefore under SB 4 an officer may not detain or arrest an individual for the sole purpose of making an immigration inquiry.”

The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which is representing several plaintiffs in the case, said that although police officers can still ask about immigration status, the questioned individual has the right not to answer and police cannot detain a person solely on the suspicion that they are undocumented.

“By enjoining the bulk of SB 4, the federal court has preserved the ability of elected officials, sheriffs, and police chiefs to prevent their police forces from becoming untrained and unrestrained enforcers of federal immigration law,” MALDEF President Thomas Saenz said in a statement Wednesday. “While the court did not stop police officers from asking about immigration during a lawful detention, officers would be wise to avoid such inquiries because they could trigger a successful challenge to the detention itself, potentially jeopardizing legitimate work by local police.”

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of plaintiff La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a community union founded by César Chávez, applauded the judge’s ruling Wednesday.

“Our communities reject the discrimination and hate peddled by President Trump and Governor Abbott,” Valdez-Cox said. “We joined the lawsuit against SB 4 because we know that the law is discriminatory and cannot be implemented without racial profiling.”

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