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SB 4, the Texas 'Sanctuary Cities' Law, Is Temporarily Blocked

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily blocked most of Texas’ tough new “sanctuary cities” law that would have let police officers ask people during routine stops whether they’re in the U.S. legally and threatened sheriffs with jail time for not cooperating with federal immigration authorities. 

Lydia Balderas, left, and Merced Leyua, right, join others on June 26 as they protest against a new sanctuary cities bill outside the federal courthouse in San Antonio. AP Photo by Eric Gay

The law, known as Senate Bill 4, had been cheered by President Donald Trump’s administration and was set to take effect on Sept. 1.

It was widely viewed as the toughest immigration measure in the nation since Arizona passed what critics called a “Show Me Your Papers” law in 2010, which was later partially struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling late on Aug. 30 by U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio was handed down as anxieties about immigration enforcement in Texas have again flared in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey.

Houston officials have sought to assure families fleeing the rising floodwaters in the nation’s fourth-largest city that shelters would not ask for their immigration status.

Reaction to SB 4 Ruling

“We will celebrate this community victory and continue to fight back against all attempts to target immigrant communities in Texas.”

— Efrén C. Olivares, a Texas Civil Rights Project attorney who is working on the case

Houston police Chief Art Acevedo, an outspoken critic of the law, got word of the decision while standing inside a downtown convention center where about 10,000 people have sought shelter. He high-fived another officer.

“We needed a break. That’s a break for us,” said Acevedo, whose department has conducted thousands of high-water rescues and lost one officer who died in floodwaters as he tried to drive to work.

The ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit against SB 4, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution. Many community organizations and other local law enforcement officials in Texas oppose the law.

LUPE, a Texas-based community organization founded by civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, welcomed the judge’s decision. 

“Our communities reject the discrimination and hate peddled by President Trump and Governor Abbott. We joined the lawsuit against SB 4 because we know that the law is discriminatory and cannot be implemented without racial profiling,” Juanita Valdez-Cox, LUPE executive director, said in a statement.

Reaction to SB 4 Ruling

“This decision today feels like a ray of sunshine, and Texans, especially undocumented Texans, deserve a reprieve in what has been a steady assault on their families.”

— Michelle Tremillo, executive director of the Texas Organizing Education Fund

“…But the fight is not over yet. There is no doubt the state of Texas will appeal the ruling, and we will take this case as far as necessary to strike down the law. For now, today’s ruling allows us to focus on pushing good policies at the local level that get police out of deportations and build trust between communities and law enforcement.”

The measure sailed through the Republican-controlled Legislature despite months of protests and opposition from business groups, which worried that it could cause a labor-force shortage and send a negative economic message.

Also leading the lawsuit that Garcia considered were Texas’ largest cities— including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin — in a state where the Hispanic population has grown at a pace three times that of whites since 2010.

Garcia wrote in his 94-page ruling that Texas’ law was pre-empted by existing federal statute and therefore unconstitutional.

Reaction to SB 4 Ruling

“The Texas Legislature has a reliable history of ignoring the Constitution when writing law, and we’re thankful the court blocked SB 4….But we do not expect Gov. Abbott or Attorney General Ken Paxton to yield easily. This fight isn’t over yet.

— Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas

The judge noted that when it was being considered in public legislative hearings, only eight people testified in favor of it while 1,600 “showed up to oppose it.”

He also wrote there “is overwhelming evidence by local officials, including local law enforcement, that SB 4 will erode public trust and make many communities and neighborhoods less safe” while adding that “localities will suffer adverse economic consequences which, in turn, will harm the state of Texas.”

“The court cannot and does not second guess the Legislature,” Garcia wrote. “However, the state may not exercise its authority in a manner that violates the United States Constitution.”

Garcia’s order suspends the law’s most contentious language while suggesting that even parts of the law that can go forward won’t withstand further legal challenges.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the law in May, said Texas would appeal immediately and expressed confidence that the state would eventually prevail.

Reaction to SB 4 Ruling

“Texas families won the first of many battles against Gov. Abbott….Texas families are fighting for the Texas that we can be. We will continue to fight back in court, in the streets, and in our communities.”

— Jose P. Garza of the Worker’s Defense Project

He also again took a swipe at the elected Democratic sheriff of Travis County, Sally Hernandez, who had announced on the day of Trump’s inauguration that her Austin jails would no longer automatically honor all detainer requests made by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

“Today’s decision makes Texas’ communities less safe. Because of this ruling, gang members and dangerous criminals, like those who have been released by the Travis County Sheriff, will be set free to prey upon our communities,” Abbott said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which has made “sanctuary cities” a new priority under the Trump administration, had joined Texas is defending the law in court. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has threatened to pull federal money from jurisdictions that hinder communication between local police and immigration authorities and has praised Texas’ law.

The law had sought to fine law enforcement authorities who fail to honor federal requests to hold people jailed on offenses that aren’t immigration related for possible deportation.

Reaction to SB 4 Ruling

“As many of our neighbors and friends suffer because of Hurricane Harvey, today’s news is a bit of welcome relief that they won’t be facing another terror.”

— Julieta Garibay, co-founder of United We Dream

It also would have ensured that police chiefs, sheriffs and constables could face removal from office and even criminal charges for failing to comply with such federal “detainer” requests.

Opponents of the law told Garcia that his ruling could determine if other states pursue copycat measures, while the Texas attorney general’s office argued that the new law had fewer teeth than the Arizona measure.

Since January, the bill has elevated political tensions in Texas, and it boiled over in May when Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi told Democrats he had called federal immigration agents to report protesters in the Capitol who he said were holding signs that said they were not legal citizens.

A Democrat whose district is near the U.S.-Mexico border admitted confronting and pushing Rinaldi, who has acknowledged telling him that he would “shoot him in self-defense.”


Paul Weber of The Associated Press co-wrote this report. Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Houston and Brad Wong, news editor for Marguerite Casey Foundation‘s Equal Voice News, contributed to the report. This report was updated since it was published. 

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