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The Legal Battle Over Senate Bill 4 Begins, As U.S. House Takes Up Issue of Sanctuary Cities

Protestors outside the San Antonio federal courthouse where U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia heard arguments on June 26, 2017 about the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4.
Protestors outside the San Antonio federal courthouse where U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia heard arguments on June 26, 2017 about the constitutionality of Senate Bill 4.

From Texas Standard:

On Monday, a San Antonio  federal judge heard arguments in what could be a lengthy legal battle over Senate Bill 4, also known as the “sanctuary cities” law.


SB 4 would effectively make it a crime for local officials to refuse to comply with lawful immigration detention orders from the federal government. SB 4 also includes a so-called “show me your papers” provision, which would permit local law enforcement agents in Texas to ask about the immigration status of people they stop or detain.Opponents of the measure include the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties. They argue that the law unfairly targets certain communities and thus violates the Equation Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Law enforcement officers worry that witnesses or victims of crime won’t come forward because they fear they will be asked about their immigration status.

“Proponents of the law suggest that the courts aren't the proper place to decide the policy, that it should be hashed out in the Legislature,” says  Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston. “They also suggest that these issues have been settled in the past.”

Rottinghaus says the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a similar “show me your papers” law in Arizona was constitutional.

“But the court did leave some of these questions open, about whether or not this led to racial profiling, and that could be subject to further review,” he says.

Opponents of SB 4 also argue that the law is vague, in that it doesn’t give guidance to law enforcement officers and the punishment for violating it is unclear.

They are seeking a temporary injunction of the law, which is scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.

“My guess is that [the judge will] find an injunction because on its face, there are concerns about the constitutionality of the issue,” Rottinghaus says.

On Thursday, lawyers representing the Texas attorney general’s office argued in an Austin courtroom that the case against SB 4 should be filed and settled in Austin rather than San Antonio.

The attorney general’s office sued Travis County and Austin officials in May after Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law, seeking a ruling that the bill is constitutional.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks  gave no indication as to when he might make a decision, and instead suggested that U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio had a lighter docket.

Rottinghaus says Sparks is “aggressively skeptical” of both sides.

The sanctuary cities issue does not just pertain to Texas, however, as evidenced this week when Republicans in the U.S. House  passed two bills on Thursday that would stiffen federal immigration enforcement.

The first, “Kate’s Law,” is named for a young woman who was murdered by an unauthorized immigrant who had been previously deported. It would increase prison sentences for unauthorized immigrants who enter the country without authorization after deportation.

“That obviously strikes an emotional cord with a lot of people, and Republicans have been playing the law and order card to some success,” Rottinghaus says.

The “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” would deny federal funds to localities that do not comply with federal immigration enforcement.

“This is another effort on behalf of the Republicans to prime the pump on what is a major flashpoint for their base, and that is illegal immigration,” Rottinghaus says. “They’re going to get pushback from the Democrats. I think that this is going to have trouble getting traction in the Senate and Democrats know their base is riled up about these immigration issues, both all across the country but especially here in Texas.”

Written by Molly Smith.

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