Court puts Texas migrant law back on hold

A late-night order from a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel put on hold Texas's state expansion into border enforcement.


National News

March 20, 2024 - 3:14 PM

A member of the National Guard directs a vehicle at the gate to Shelby Park along the Rio Grande, Wednesday in Eagle Pass, Texas. Photo by AP Photo/Eric Gay

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Plans by Texas to arrest migrants suspected of entering the U.S. illegally were again on hold Wednesday after setting off uncertainty along the border and anger from Mexico flared during a brief few hours that the law was allowed to take effect.

A late-night order Tuesday from a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel put on hold — again — Texas’ dramatic state expansion into border enforcement. Earlier in the day, the U.S. Supreme Court had cleared the way for the strict immigration law, dealing a victory to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and encouraging GOP lawmakers in other states that are pushing for similar measures.

But later in a 2-1 order, an appeals court panel continued the legal seesaw surrounding the Texas law, again pausing it ahead of oral arguments that were scheduled for Wednesday. It was not clear how quickly the next decision might come.

During the short time the law was in effect Tuesday, Texas authorities did not announce any arrests or say whether it was being actively enforced. Along the border in Kinney County, Sheriff Brad Coe embraced the arrest powers but said deputies would need probable cause.

“It is unlikely that observers will see an overnight change,” said Coe, whose county covers a stretch of border near Del Rio that until recently had been the busiest corridor for illegal crossings but has quieted considerably.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the law. It instead kicked back to the lower appeals court a challenge led by the Justice Department, which has argued that Texas is overstepping the federal government’s authority.

The latest appeals court order included no explanation from the panel. But it had the effect of restoring an injunction issued in February by U.S. District Judge David Ezra, who rebuked the law on multiple fronts. His 114-page opinion brushed off Republicans’ claims of an “invasion” along the southern border due to record-high illegal crossings. Ezra, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, also warned that the law could hamper U.S. foreign relations.

Under the Texas law, once defendants are in custody on illegal entry charges, they can agree to a judge’s order to leave the U.S. or face prosecution. On Tuesday, Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Secretary said in a sharply worded statement that it would refuse to take anyone back who is ordered to cross the border.

“Mexico reiterates the legitimate right to protect the rights of its nationals in the United States and to determine its own policies regarding entry into its territory,” the government said.

The impact extends far beyond the Texas border. Republican legislators wrote the law so that it applies in all of the state’s 254 counties, although Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has said he expects it will mostly be enforced near the border.

Other GOP-led states are already looking to follow Texas’ path. In Iowa, the state House gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that would also give its state law enforcement the power to arrest people who are in the U.S. illegally and have previously been denied entry into the country.

It now goes to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds. If signed, it would take effect in July.

“The federal government has abdicated its responsibilities and states can and must act,” Republican Iowa state Rep. Steven Holt said.

In Texas, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, the top county executive, said immigration enforcement should remain a federal, not state, responsibility, echoing the Biden administration’s view. He said heightened law enforcement presence in the city of El Paso during a previous migrant surge brought high-speed chases and traffic stops based on assumptions that passengers were in the country illegally.

“We had accidents, we had injuries, we got a little glimpse of what would happen if the state begins to control what happens in respect to immigration,” Samaniego said.

Skylor Hearn, executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said sheriffs’ offices have been training since last year.