Federal Judge Blocks Sweeping New Immigration Law in Texas


A federal court in Austin on Thursday blocked the implementation of a Texas law that would allow state and local police officers to arrest migrants who cross from Mexico without authorization, siding with the federal government in a legal showdown over immigration enforcement.

The ruling, by Judge David A. Ezra of the Western District of Texas, was a victory for the Biden administration, which had argued that the new state law violated federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution.

The Texas law had been set to go into effect on March 5 but will now be put on hold as the case moves forward. In granting a preliminary injunction, Judge Ezra, who was appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, signaled that the federal government was likely to eventually win on the merits.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who has moved aggressively over the past three years to create a state-level system of border enforcement, was likely to appeal the decision.

Texas has been fighting with the Biden administration on several legal fronts, including the placement last year of a 1,000-foot barrier of buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande and, separately, the installation of miles of concertina wire along the banks of the river.

But the battle over the new state law, known as Senate Bill 4, represented the most consequential legal confrontation because it directly challenged what has historically been seen as the federal government’s unique role in arresting, detaining and deporting migrants who are in the country without authorization.

Legal experts have said the fight over the law is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, and Judge Ezra said during a three-hour hearing earlier this month that he also expected the case to reach the nation’s highest court.

If it does, it would give the 6-to-3 conservative majority a chance to revisit a landmark 2012 case out of Arizona that upheld the power of the federal government to set immigration policy.

It is already illegal under federal law to cross into the United States between legal ports of entry. But in practice, most migrants are not prosecuted the first time they do so. Most of those apprehended are not trying to evade the authorities but rather are trying to be detained by the U.S. Border Patrol, affording them a chance to seek asylum protections. While the majority are eventually denied, these asylum cases can take years to be resolved, and migrants are permitted to remain in the country in the meantime.

The Texas Legislature designed S.B. 4 to closely follow the federal law barring illegal entry, making it a state-level misdemeanor to enter Texas from Mexico. A second illegal entry, under the law, would be a felony.

But immigrant groups, civil rights advocates and some Texas Democrats have criticized the legislation because it would make it more difficult for migrants being persecuted in their home countries to seek asylum, and it does not protect legitimate asylum seekers from prosecution in state courts.

Critics have also said that the law could lead to racial profiling because it permits law enforcement officers across Texas, even those far from the border, to arrest anyone they suspect of having entered illegally in the previous two years.

“It just slaps the federal immigration law in the face,” Judge Ezra said during the hearing.

Lawyers for the Biden administration, during the hearing and in their filings, argued that the Texas law conflicted with numerous federal laws that provide a process for handling immigration proceedings and deportations. The administration also said the law interfered with the federal government’s ability to conduct foreign relations, pointing to complaints already lodged against the Texas legislation by the government of Mexico.

Under S.B. 4, migrants charged with illegally crossing into Texas could, during the court process, be ordered to return to Mexico or face prosecution if they did not agree to go. The Mexican authorities said they “rejected” any legislation that allows the state or local authorities to send migrants, most of whom are not Mexican, back over the border to Mexico.

“To the extent Texas wishes to help with immigration enforcement, it can do so by working cooperatively with the federal government,” the Justice Department wrote in its motion seeking an injunction, “or by working with Congress to change the law.”

Lawyers for Texas, from the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, argued in their opposition to the injunction that the state law did not conflict with federal law since it “comports” with existing federal prohibitions on illegal entry.

The state’s lawyers described the recent record number of migrant arrivals at the Texas border as “a full-scale invasion of transnational criminal cartels” and argued that Texas had the power to defend itself. They pointed to Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution, which bars states from engaging in war “unless actually invaded.”

Under pressure from immigration hard-liners and former Trump administration officials, Mr. Abbott said in November 2022 that he had invoked the “invasion” clause. The state has also cited the constitutional provision in the other pending cases between Texas and the federal government.

The argument had been previously shot down by Judge Ezra, who also presided over the buoy barrier case.

During the hearing on S.B. 4, Judge Ezra asked questions frequently, particularly when the lawyer representing the Texas attorney general was speaking, and appeared strongly skeptical of the law.

“Let’s say for the purpose of argument that I agree with you,” he told the state’s lawyer, Ryan Walters. California might then want to pass its own immigration and deportation law, he said. Maybe then Maine would follow, he said, then others, like Louisiana or Arizona or New Mexico.

“That turns us from the United States of America into a confederation of states,” Judge Ezra said. “What a nightmare.”

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