HOUSTON — A federal judge in San Antonio on Wednesday blocked Texas from enforcing its ban on so-called sanctuary cities, questioning the constitutionality of a law that has pitted Republican state leaders against several Democratic-leaning cities.
The judge’s ruling was only temporary, and prevents the law from taking effect on Friday while a suit against it goes forward. But the decision, which Texas said it would appeal, served as a legal blow to one of the toughest state-issued immigration laws in the country and puts the brakes on a measure backed by the Trump administration that critics had called anti-Latino. The law has become so divisive that it served as the backdrop of a shoving match at the Texas Capitol between Hispanic Democratic lawmakers and their white Republican colleagues.
The law, known as Senate Bill 4 or S.B. 4, prohibits cities and counties from adopting policies that limit immigration enforcement, allows police officers to question the immigration status of anyone they detain or arrest and threatens officials who violate the law with fines, jail time and removal from office. It also directs local officials to cooperate with so-called immigration detainer requests, which allow foreign-born detainees to be transferred to federal custody after they are released from state or local custody.
A number of the state’s biggest cities, including Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas, all of which are run by Democrats, joined a lawsuit against Texas seeking to strike down the law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, in May.
In his ruling issued Wednesday evening, the judge, Orlando L. Garcia of United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, granted a preliminary injunction preventing the law from taking effect while the suit continues.
Judge Garcia appeared to block three provisions of the law, including one that stated that local government entities and officials may not “adopt, enforce or endorse” any policy limiting the enforcement of immigration laws.
Lawyers for those suing the state said prohibiting local officials from endorsing a particular viewpoint violates the First Amendment. Judge Garcia wrote that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed with that argument when the case goes to trial.
“The government may disagree with certain viewpoints, but they cannot ban them just because they are inconsistent with the view that the government seeks to promote,” Judge Garcia wrote. He added, “SB 4 clearly targets and seeks to punish speakers based on their viewpoint on local immigration enforcement policy.”
Some of the law’s most contentious provisions allow police officers to question the immigration status of a person whom they have arrested or detained, including during routine traffic stops, and create a system of harsh penalties for those who try to “materially limit” immigration enforcement, including removal from office for elected or appointed officials and criminal misdemeanor charges for sheriffs and other law enforcement officials.
In his ruling, Judge Garcia said that the law’s provision banning policies that limit enforcement of immigration laws was unconstitutionally vague and failed to define the specific prohibited conduct. The provision, the judge wrote, “ascribes criminal and quasi-criminal penalties based upon violations of an inscrutable standard, in a manner that invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against disfavored localities.”
Texas vowed to appeal Judge Garcia’s decision, setting the stage for the case to be heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, one of the country’s most conservative appeals panels. Judge Garcia, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, was a Democratic state lawmaker in the 1980s.
Critics of Senate Bill 4, including the police chiefs in Houston, San Antonio and other large cities, said it would open the door to racial profiling of Hispanics and prevent legal and undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes to the police. Latino and civil rights groups call it a “show me your papers” law that echoes the one enacted by Arizona in 2010 that led to lawsuits and boycotts.
Supporters of Senate Bill 4 say that opponents have distorted its intent and potential impact. They said the law has a provision specifically prohibiting racial profiling and argued that a Supreme Court ruling in 2012 that upheld part of the Arizona law put the state on solid legal ground. The Trump administration’s Justice Department has also defended the Texas law, filing statements of interest in the case.
“U.S. Supreme Court precedent for laws similar to Texas’ law are firmly on our side,” Mr. Abbott said in a statement. “This decision will be appealed immediately and I am confident Texas’ law will be found constitutional and ultimately be upheld.”
Civil rights lawyers and Latino groups praised Judge Garcia’s ruling, calling the law racist and unconstitutional.
“The court properly struck down virtually all of what was perhaps the harshest anti-immigrant provision in modern times,” said Lee Gelernt, who is the deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project and who represents the border town of El Cenizo and other plaintiffs in the suit.
Judge Garcia upheld the law’s provision that police officers can ask about the immigration status of those they detain or arrest. But he blocked the provision mandating that local jurisdictions comply with immigration detainer requests from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Judge Garcia said that by prohibiting local officials from declining a detainer request, the law also prohibited officials from questioning whether there was probable cause to support the detainer requested.
In his statement, the governor suggested that the judge’s blocking of that provision would make Texas 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,” Mr. Abbott said.
Critics of the law, however, including local officials in San Antonio, disagreed. “The city and the San Antonio Police Department have cooperated and will continue to cooperate with federal law enforcement’s reasonable requests,” San Antonio’s city attorney, Andy Segovia, said in a statement. “However, SB4 attempted to remove any discretion from local law enforcement in how to best serve the residents of San Antonio.”
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