Texas law that allows arrest of migrants suspected of illegally crossing border to remain on hold

AP logo
Wednesday, March 27, 2024
Texas' SB4 law to remain on hold for now, court ruled overnight
Texas' migrant arrest law remains on hold after a federal appeals court refused to lift the order in a 2-1 ruling late Tuesday night.

NEW ORLEANS -- A Texas law that allows the state to arrest and deport migrants suspected of illegally entering the U.S. will remain on hold for now, a federal appeals court ruled.

Texas' controversial migrant arrest law is back on hold after briefly taking effect Tuesday

The 2-1 ruling late Tuesday from a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals followed a March 20 hearing by a three-judge panel of the court. It's just the latest move in a seesaw legal case over Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's strict new immigration law that is not yet ended.

The Justice Department has argued that Texas' law is a clear violation of federal authority and would create chaos at the border. Texas has argued that President Joe Biden's administration isn't doing enough to control the border and that the state has a right to take action.

Judge Andrew Oldham, an appointee of former President Donald Trump and a former aide to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, dissented with the majority decision.

Oldham wrote that the Biden administration faced a high bar to take sovereign power that Texas has to enforce a law its people and leaders want. The judge predicted the same 2-1 split when the merits of the case are considered while the legal challenge plays out.

"There is real peril in this approach. In our federal system, the State of Texas is supposed to retain at least some of its sovereignty," Oldham wrote. "Its people are supposed to be able to use that sovereignty to elect representatives and send them to Austin to debate and enact laws that respond to the exigencies that Texans experience and that Texans want addressed."

The law was in effect for several hours on March 19 after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way. But the high court didn't rule on the merits of the case. It instead sent the case back to the 5th Circuit, which then suspended enforcement while it considered the latest appeal.

The latest ruling keeps the block in place.

PREVIOUS REPORT: How Texas' plans to arrest migrants for illegal entry work after SB 4 allowed to take effect

Spokespersons for Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately return phone calls for comment Wednesday morning.

The law signed by Abbott allows any Texas law enforcement officer to arrest people suspected of entering the country illegally, but that brief window while the law was in effect revealed that many sheriffs were unprepared, unable or uninterested in enforcing SB4 in the first place.

Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland of Terrell County, which touches more than 50 miles of border, said during a gathering of about 100 sheriffs at the state Capitol last week said there's no practical way for him to enforce the law.

Cleveland said he has no way to transport people, the county jail has space for just seven people and the closest port of entry is a drive of more than 2 1/2 hours away.

Houston lawmaker says SB4 'nothing to do with papers type of law,' others say it sends bad message

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith, president of the Texas Sheriff's Association, said the law will have little effect in his jurisdiction in East Texas, which is closer to Louisiana and Oklahoma than Mexico which is nearly 400 miles away.

Once in custody, migrants could either agree to a Texas judge's order to leave the U.S. or be prosecuted on misdemeanor charges of illegal entry. Migrants who don't leave could face arrest again under more serious felony charges.

Texas did not announce any arrests during the brief time the law was previously in effect. Authorities have offered various explanations for how they might enforce the law. Mexico has said it would refuse to take back anyone who is ordered by Texas to cross the border.

The law is considered by opponents to be the most dramatic attempt by a state to police immigration since an Arizona law more than a decade ago that was partially struck down by the Supreme Court. Critics have also said the Texas law could lead to civil rights violations and racial profiling.

Supporters have rejected those concerns, saying arresting officers must have probable cause, which could include witnessing the illegal entry or seeing it on video. They also say that they expect the law would be used mostly in border counties, though it would apply statewide.