NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Three federal appeals court judges heard arguments Friday on whether they should allow a Texas law that bans sanctuary cities and requires police officers to question the immigration status of “lawfully detained” persons to go into effect.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia blocked much of the law on Aug. 31, a day before it was to take effect.
Texas officials, together with the U.S. Department of Justice, filed for an emergency stay of Garcia’s ruling so the law could go into effect right away.
Friday’s hearing focused on the government’s motion. Another, more thorough hearing on the constitutionality of Texas law will take place at the Fifth Circuit the week of November 6.
SB4 allows city and country officials to find out the immigration status of persons who have violated even seemingly small offenses, such as jaywalking or running a stop light. This particular component of the law was not blocked by Judge Garcia. However, asking about immigration is still at the officials’ discretion. If SB4 goes into effect, asking about immigration status would become a requirement.
In addition, under the law, SB4, Texas police chiefs could face removal from office and criminal charges up to $25,000 for not following federal immigration officials’ orders to detain people already jailed for offenses unrelated to immigration.
Several local governments in Texas are fighting the law and say it would be bad for Texas if SB4 goes into effect because, among other reasons, it will keep people from reporting crimes to the police and from trusting the government.
Texas State Governor Greg Abbott, who championed the bill, said in a statement released last month that without SB4 the state will be less safe.
Opponents to the bill include municipal officials from all over Texas – from San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston and El Paso. They are joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“SB4 to me says that all 240 counties in Texas are saying to law enforcement officials: ‘You must stop and detain…’” persons who seem likely to be immigrants, Judge Stephen Higginson told Scott Keller of the Texas Attorney General’s Office Friday during oral arguments.
Keller said Texas has discretion to require anything it wants of its law enforcement and other officials.
Loud chanting and drumming from immigrants and their advocates as they apparently circled the block outside periodically filled the courtroom during arguments.
Each of the judges on the panel – Higginson who was nominated to the seat by President Barack Obama, James Dennis, by President Bill Clinton, and Leslie Southwick, a nominee of George W. Bush – questioned where “the line” was between requiring officials to find out immigration status and hold detainees and between keeping it discretionary.
Under current federal law, law enforcement and other municipal officials have the option of asking such information of detainees, and the discretion of acting upon what they find.
SB4 would demand officials ask these questions and act upon the information given.
While Keller stood near the bench, Higginson and Dennis exchanged a look and chuckled. Then Higginson explained to Keller:
“We’ve seen you here before. But usually you and the DOJ are not on the same side.”
Nina Perales, who argued on behalf of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund during the hearing, gave a press conference on the courthouse steps afterward.
“Our position is that the law is so flawed, and the district court’s ruling so sound that the law should remain blocked, pending a resolution of the appeal by the Fifth Circuit,” Perales said.
Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and the State of Texas, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made a sideline for a door onto a lesser used street where cars awaited to shuttle them quietly out of sight following the hearing.
Outside the main entrance doors a few dozen protestors still congregated on the courthouse steps where a press conference between plaintiff attorneys took place.
Protestors – one in a rubber Trump mask and a plastic cape that read “I am a racist, white supremacist scumbag” – stood near with signs.
Javier Hernandez, 25, one of 40 or so protestors who came by bus from Houston, said he thought SB4, if it were to go into effect, would be bad for Texas.
Hernandez said he and his sibling have DACA status, while their mother is undocumented, and that he worries about her if SB4 goes into effect.
SB4, he said, “would create a division between community and law enforcement.