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ImmigrationAttorneys spar over Texas immigration law in federal court

By Julián Aguilar

Published 27 June 2017

Monday was the first day of what could be a lengthy legal battle over Senate Bill 4, which has been billed as the toughest state-based immigration bill in the country. Opponents of Texas’ state-based immigration law told a federal judge that allowing the controversial measure to stand would pave the way for a nationwide police state where local officers could subvert the established immigration-enforcement powers of the federal government.

Opponents of Texas’ state-based immigration law told a federal judge Monday that allowing the controversial measure to stand would pave the way for a nationwide police state where local officers could subvert the established immigration-enforcement powers of the federal government.

But the state’s attorneys argued in tandem with their colleagues from the U.S. Department of Justice that the issue was settled in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a state-based immigration-enforcement provision passed in Arizona.

The day marked the first skirmish in what could be a lengthy battle over Texas’ law, Senate Bill 4, which has been billed as the toughest state-based immigration bill in the country. Known as the “sanctuary cities” law, SB4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and seeks to punish 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. Punishment could come in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

Opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including guarantees of equal protection and freedom of speech. They are seeking a temporary injunction of the rule, which is scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.

Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the city of El Cenizo, a small municipality in Webb County, argued that the law, as written is vague and provides such little guidance to officers that they will be forced to use a heavy hand when detaining or arresting someone. That, he said, will lead to a broad assumption that they need to ask nearly every minority their immigration status for fear of violating the provision of the law — the aftereffect of which would be an across-the-board erosion of Texans’ rights.

“The overriding point is that the penalties are so harsh that it’s simply unrealistic for any police officer to take a chance” of violating the law, Gelernt told U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. “[The lawmakers] knew what they were doing when they crafted the legislation.”