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Court Ruling On Texas Anti-Sanctuary City Law Sets The Stage For More Legal Battles

Protesters in Texas denouncing SB4, that state's law banning "sanctuary cities."

As Texas prepares to implement a law banning "sanctuary city" policies in that state, immigrant advocates say they will be documenting how the law is enforced as they continue their legal fight against it.

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the law known as SB4 can take effect over the objections of a lower court, which issued an injunction in August 2017 that kept the law on hold. The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit delighted its supporters and disappointed its opponents.

The appellate panel remanded the case back to the district court for a hearing on the merits.

SB4 was approved by the Texas legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Gregg Abbott in May 2017. Among other things, it allows police to ask about an individual's immigration status during routine interactions such as a traffic stop. It also requires police and sheriffs to comply with federal immigration detainer requests to hold criminal suspects for possible deportation. Law enforcement officers who don't cooperate with federal authorities can be jailed and removed from office.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the ruling.

"I'm pleased that the 5th circuit recognized that Senate Bill 4 is lawful, constitutional and protects the safety of law enforcement officers and all Texans," Mr. Paxton said. "Enforcing immigration law prevents the release of individuals from custody who have been charged with serious crimes. Dangerous criminals shouldn't be allowed back into our communities to possibly commit more crimes."

Opponents of the law said they are disappointed, but not surprised by the appellate ruling.

"The decision is a blow to the civil rights of every Texan," said Efren Olivares, an attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project. "Millions of immigrants and people of color face the prospect of unlawful racial profiling and discrimination. But we are not deterred. We knew this was going to be a long fight when we started and we are prepared to go the distance."

He said his group may seek an en banc hearing by the 5th Circuit. Meanwhile, they will be monitoring enforcement of the law to see whether any civil or constitutional rights are violated. In those cases, he said, "more lawsuits might arise."

There was one silver lining for SB4 opponents. The appeals court rejected one part of the law that prohibits local officials from "endorsing" a policy that limits enforcement of immigration laws. The judges ruled that such a ban violates the First Amendment.

Otherwise, the judges said that opponents of the law were not likely to succeed on the merits of their claims that SB4 would violate constitutional protections.

Immigrant and civil rights advocates opposing SB4 were joined by some of the state's largest jurisdictions such as Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, as well as El Paso County.

The case is also being closely watched by supporters of sanctuary policies in California and other states.

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Justice Department is suing California, alleging that its sanctuary policies endanger the lives of law enforcement officers.

But California comes under the watch of a different appeals court, the 9th Circuit, which is widely viewed as more liberal.

"The 9th Circuit is very different from the 5th Circuit," said Angie Junck of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "We will be analyzing the arguments made by the 5th Circuit to defend California."

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