Fifth Circuit Rules Texas Can Enforce Parts of Sanctuary City Ban

NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A three-judge panel in the Fifth Circuit ruled that parts of a Texas law that bans sanctuary cities can go into effect while the legal battle over the constitutionality of the measure plays out.

Protesters outside a Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 federal hearing on whether a Texas ban on sanctuary cities should be allowed to go into effect. Photo by Sabrina Canfield.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia blocked much of the anti-sanctuary cities law, Senate Bill 4, on Aug. 31, a day before it was to take effect. Texas appealed and filed for an emergency stay of the San Antonio judge’s ruling.

SB 4 bans sanctuary city policies, which prohibit local law enforcement from sharing information about a person’s immigration status with the federal government, and punishes local officials who endorse any policy that limits the enforcement of immigration laws with up to a year in jail and fines of $25,000 a day.

The bill requires local police to comply with detainer requests from federal immigration officers to hand over immigrants for possible deportation. It also permits local law enforcement to question the immigration status of any “lawfully detained” person, including people stopped for minor traffic offenses.

On Monday, a panel of appellate judges in New Orleans granted part of the state’s motion to stay, allowing certain provisions of the law to be implemented pending the court’s ruling on the merits of the state’s appeal.

U.S. Circuit Judges Stephen Higginson, James Dennis and Leslie Southwick — who heard arguments on the motion to stay Friday — ruled that the part of the law that requires police officers to comply with immigration detainer requests can proceed for now.

However, the panel noted that this provision does not require detention for every Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer request.

“Rather, the ‘comply with, honor, and fulfill’ provision mandates that local agencies cooperate according to existing ICE detainer practice and law,” the per curiam opinion states.

The Fifth Circuit panel also ruled that Texas can enforce part of the law that says that local or campus police officers cannot be prohibited or materially limited from assisting federal immigration officers.

However, the three judges granted the stay on this provision on the condition that the state clarifies the phrase “materially limits” to better describe what kind of government actions would be considered improper limitations.

Where this term appears elsewhere in the law, the court upheld the lower court’s injunctions, so Texas is still blocked from implementing the provision that prohibits local agencies and campus police from adopting policies that “materially limit” immigration enforcement.

“Here, too, we conclude that the defendants have acknowledged that the reach of the word ‘limit’ could be too expansive and have offered qualifying interpretations,” the ruling states. “We conclude that such interpretations are best left for the time when this court’s ruling would have more finality.”

The panel also upheld the lower court’s decision to block part of the law that would prohibit public officials from endorsing sanctuary city policies, which means that officials are still free to express their views regarding immigration enforcement.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the panel’s unanimous decision to stay parts of the lower court’s ruling and said he was confident that SB 4 would ultimately be found constitutional and upheld.

“We are pleased today’s 5th Circuit ruling will allow Texas to strengthen public safety by implementing the key components of Senate Bill 4,” Paxton said in a statement Monday. “Enforcing immigration law helps prevent dangerous criminals from being released into Texas communities.”

During his State of the State address in January, Gov. Greg Abbott said that SB 4 was necessary to “protect Texans from deadly danger,” and he fast-tracked the bill.

However, 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.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing two of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement that Monday’s ruling puts millions of Texans at risk for racial profiling and discrimination and could lead to “unnecessary and harmful turmoil” to jurisdictions across the state.

Efrén Olivares, a Texas Civil Rights Project program director, said that the group would be working with cities, counties and college campuses across the state to ensure that Texans’ civil rights are not violated with the implementation of SB 4, as the group prepares for the next hearing, scheduled for Nov. 6.

“We are disappointed and disagree with the panel’s decision to allow additional provisions of SB4 to go into effect and stand against Texas immigrants and families,” Olivares said. “This decision endangers Texas immigrants and families.”

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