US Supreme Court won’t halt Texas law on illegal border crossings

By Thomson Reuters Mar 19, 2024 | 1:19 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to block a Republican-backed Texas law allowing state law enforcement authorities to arrest people suspected of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, rejecting a request by President Joe Biden’s administration.

The administration had asked the justices to freeze a judicial order allowing the Texas law to take effect while the U.S. government’s challenge to the statute proceeds in the lower courts. The administration has argued that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law by interfering with the U.S. government’s power to regulate immigration.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott last December signed the law, known as SB 4, authorizing state law enforcement to arrest people suspected of entering the United States illegally, giving local officers powers long delegated to the U.S. government.

Abbott said the law was needed due to Biden’s failure to enforce federal laws criminalizing illegal entry or re-entry, telling a Dec. 18 press conference that “Biden’s deliberate inaction has left Texas to fend for itself.”

The Democratic president’s handling of the record numbers of migrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border during his presidency has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans. Abbott and other Republicans have said Biden should have kept the restrictive policies of former President Donald Trump, their party’s candidate challenging Biden in the Nov. 5 U.S. election.

The Texas law made illegal entry or re-entry into Texas a state crime, with penalties ranging from 180 days in jail to 20 years in prison. Under it, Texas magistrate judges will be required to order migrants to return to Mexico, with up to 20-year sentences for those who refuse to comply.

The Justice Department sued in January to block the measure, which was originally set to take effect on March 5. Biden administration lawyers argued that it violates federal law and constitutional provisions giving the U.S. government the power to regulate commerce with foreign countries and among states, and runs afoul of a 2012 Supreme Court precedent.

Texas-based U.S. District David Ezra on Feb. 29 sided with the administration and agreed to preliminarily block Texas officials from enforcing the law, saying that it “threatens the fundamental notion that the United States must regulate immigration with one voice.”

But the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals paused Ezra’s ruling in an order that would have let the Texas law take effect on March 10, prompting the administration to file an emergency request to the Supreme Court.

Justice Samuel Alito, who handles certain emergency matters involving cases from a group of states including Texas, on March 4 halted the 5th Circuit ruling – and thus the law – from taking effect, giving the Supreme Court more time to consider the matter.

Texas has pursued a range of measures to deter people who cross illegally under its Operation Lone Star, including deploying National Guard troops to the border, blocking migrants with concertina wire and installing a floating barrier over a stretch of the Rio Grande.

Republicans in February scuttled a bipartisan Senate deal that would have bolstered border security and tightened immigration laws after Trump pushed members of his party to reject it. Biden said blame for the bill’s failure lay with Republican lawmakers who bowed to political pressure from Trump who “thinks it’s bad for him politically.”

An analysis of exit polls conducted by Edison Research following primary election voting in early March showed alarm among many voters over the situation along the border. Many called it their top voting issue. Reuters/Ipsos polling showed Biden’s public approval level at 37% as of Feb. 28.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)