US appeals court weighing fate of Texas border enforcement law

By Thomson Reuters Mar 20, 2024 | 10:09 AM

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday began hearing arguments on whether to continue blocking a Republican-backed Texas law that would empower state authorities to arrest and prosecute migrants for illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

A three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the state’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that stopped the law, known as SB4, from taking effect pending the outcome of a challenge by the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden and civil rights groups.

The 5th Circuit had initially paused that ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision on Tuesday, briefly allowing Texas to enforce the law. But in an unusual move hours later, the 5th Circuit panel reversed its earlier ruling in a 2-1 vote.

The dispute over the Texas law is one in a series of legal battles between Republican state officials and the Biden administration over the state’s ability to police the border. Texas officials have blamed Biden for an influx in illegal border crossings that they have said drains states resources and threatens public safety.

The statute was signed in December by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott. The Biden administration sued in January to stop the law, arguing that it violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law by interfering with the U.S. government’s power to regulate immigration as well as running afoul of a 2012 Supreme Court precedent.

Texas has challenged a number of federal immigration policies in court, including the U.S. government’s destruction of razor-wire fencing the state has placed along the border, while the Biden administration is suing to force the state to remove a 1,000-foot-long floating barrier in the Rio Grande river.

In a statement on Tuesday responding to the Supreme Court decision, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Texas law will “burden law enforcement and sow chaos and confusion at our southern border.”

“SB4 is just another example of Republican officials politicizing the border while blocking real solutions,” she said.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the Supreme Court ruling in a statement on Tuesday, before the 5th Circuit decision blocking enforcement of the law. Paxton said he intended “to defend Texas and its sovereignty.”

SB4 would make it a state crime to illegally enter or re-enter Texas from a foreign country and would give state and local law enforcement the power to arrest and prosecute violators. It also would allow state judges to order that individuals leave the country, with prison sentences up to 20 years for those who refuse to comply.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra agreed last month in a 114-page ruling blocking the law, citing the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down key provisions of an Arizona immigration law.

Wednesday’s arguments at the 5th Circuit will focus on whether the Biden administration has shown that a temporary block on the law is warranted. That requires showing that enforcement of the law would cause irreparable harm and that the administration is likely to ultimately prevail in its lawsuit.

The 5th Circuit panel includes: Judge Priscilla Richman, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush; Judge Irma Carrillo Ramirez, a Biden appointee; and Judge Andrew Oldham, an appointee of Republican former President Donald Trump.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Will Dunham and Alexia Garamfalvi)