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Judge blocks Texas law giving state a role in arresting, deporting migrants

A mother helps her child over the barbed wire fence in Eagle Pass, Texas, after crossing into the U.S. from Mexico on Aug. 25.  (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/AFP/TNS)
By Aarón Torres Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Ruling against Texas efforts to take control of immigration enforcement, a federal judge on Thursday blocked a state law that would have empowered local law officers to arrest and state judges to deport migrants along the southern border.

Lawyers for Texas argued the law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in December and set to take effect March 5, was a valid response to an “invasion” of unauthorized migrants and criminal cartels.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra disagreed, ruling that the law known as Senate Bill 4 violated the U.S. Constitution and prior Supreme Court rulings that put the federal government in charge of enforcing immigration laws and restrictions.

Ezra also rejected Texas arguments that surging immigration constituted an invasion within the meaning of the Constitution, noting that Texas was not “engaging in war by enforcing SB 4.”

“To allow Texas to permanently supersede federal directives on the basis of an invasion would amount to nullification of federal law and authority – a notion that is antithetical to the Constitution and has been unequivocally rejected by federal courts since the Civil War,” Ezra wrote in his order.

The Texas Legislature passed SB 4 in November during the year’s fourth special session. Republicans praised the legislation, passed largely along party lines, as a necessary response to the Biden administration’s lax immigration policies, while Democrats argued that immigration enforcement belonged to the federal government, not the states.

Texas is certain to appeal Ezra’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the third immigration-related case involving Texas awaiting a ruling by the New Orleans-based court.

Arguing that the Texas law exceeded state authority, the U.S. Justice Department relied heavily on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a similar law in Arizona. The 5-3 ruling said states could not pass laws that “undermine federal law.”

Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have called on the high court to reconsider that ruling, hoping that the current 6-3 conservative majority would be willing to expand state latitude on immigration enforcement.

Texas, in court filings, argued that the law did not conflict with federal immigration statutes and that the U.S. Constitution gave Abbott and the Texas Legislature the right to protect the state from a migrant “invasion.”

SB 4 empowered state and local police to arrest migrants they believe were in the state illegally. It also allowed state judges to order migrants to be deported.

The law created two new state crimes for migrants who cross into Texas illegally – illegal entry from a foreign country, a Class B misdemeanor that carries a jail term of up to six months and a $2,000 fine, and illegal reentry into the state from a foreign country, a Class A misdemeanor with up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine for repeat offenders.

The penalty for both could escalate to felonies for migrants who had previously been convicted of certain crimes, including a prior felony conviction or two misdemeanor drug convictions.

The law also allowed state judges to issue deportation orders for migrants who agree to return to the foreign nation from which they entered Texas – presumably Mexico.

Immigration advocates, attorneys, Democratic lawmakers and dozens of federal former immigration judges appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents criticized the bill while it went through the legislative process, questioning how law enforcement officers would determine who is violating the law, potentially putting U.S. citizens in danger of being arrested. They also said the bill would likely lead to discrimination against Hispanic and Latino Texans.

Mexican officials have also criticized the law and indicated they likely would not accept migrants the state attempts to deport. Abbott, at a bill signing ceremony in December, said Mexico’s refusal to accept migrants was not expected to stop the state’s deportation efforts.

Ezra’s ruling was another legal setback in Texas efforts to limit illegal immigration into the state.

In a separate case, Ezra in September ordered Texas to remove a line of buoys placed in the Rio Grande to deter migrants from crossing the river. A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court initially sided with Ezra, saying the buoys violated a 19th-century law that prohibits obstruction along a navigable waterway. But that opinion was withdrawn in January to let all active judges on the appeals court weigh in on the matter.

With oral arguments set for May, the buoys have been allowed to remain in the river.

Texas also sued the Biden administration to block federal agents from cutting or removing state-installed razor wire along the border. A district judge and the 5th Circuit Court sided with Texas last year, but the U.S. Supreme Court in January allowed federal agents to cut, move or remove raze wire until 5th Circuit judges rule on the legality of the practice.