DALLAS – Texas local governments that united in a lawsuit challenging the state's anti-“sanctuary cities” law will now also battle the Trump Administration after the U.S. Justice Department sided with the state.
Trump’s Justice Department on Friday joined the state in U.S. District Court in San Antonio supporting Senate Bill 4, which requires local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws, levies penalties for cities and counties that refuse to do so, and threatens criminal punishment and removal from office for sheriffs or police chiefs who fail to comply.
Cities or counties can be fined $25,000 per day for each violation. The Texas bill was introduced after President Trump announced his plans to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities,” an unofficial designation based on a local government’s willingness to enforce federal immigration law.
"The Trump administration is glad to be putting its full support behind Texas's effort," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday.
In a reversal of the Obama Administration’s position, Attorney General Jeff Sessions argues that the Texas law is not preempted by the constitution’s Supremacy Clause, that it is not inconsistent with the Tenth Amendment nor does it violate the Fourth Amendment.
“The Department of Justice fully supports Texas’s effort and is participating in this lawsuit because of the strong federal interest in facilitating the state and local cooperation that is critical in enforcing our nation’s immigration laws,” Sessions said in a prepared statement.
Signed into law as Senate Bill 4 by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 7, the law goes into effect Sept. 1 unless the courts grant an injunction.
Trump’s own sanctuary cities executive order issued Jan. 25 was blocked in April by U.S. District Court Judge William H. Orrick in San Francisco, who agreed with California’s Santa Clara County that withholding federal funds as punishment for defying the presidential directive could be unconstitutional.
Fulfilling a campaign pledge, Trump threatened to withhold federal aid from cities that protect undocumented immigrants from prosecution and deportation. The executive order threatened to withhold funding for police, schools, health care and road and bridge maintenance.
According to the Urban Institute, Trump's sanctuary order could affect as many as 500 counties, 40 cities and seven states.
A Reuters analysis of federal grants found that the 10 largest U.S. cities could lose $2.27 billion in annual funds if Trump's directive were carried out. That does not include law enforcement grants excluded by the directive.
Some cities and other jurisdictions are putting disclosures in their bond offering documents about President Trump’s threat to pull federal funds from them and whether that might impact their finances.
The first suit against the Texas law was filed in May by the small border town of El Cenizo, Maverick County and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Twenty miles from Laredo, El Cenizo considers itself Texas’ original “sanctuary city” because people from both sides of the Rio Grande are welcome. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, among others, joined the El Cenizo challenge or are pursuing other suits.
“SB 4 is not directed at enforcing state law. Rather, under SB 4, local entities must enforce federal immigration law and must do so regardless of whether such enforcement will divert resources away from more pressing police needs, or place their officials and employees in jeopardy of being sued by individuals whose constitutional rights are violated,” the lawsuit El Cenizo v. State of Texas says. “Critically, moreover, SB 4 imposes severe penalties on local officials who are deemed to violate it: thousands of dollars in civil monetary penalties, removal from office, and even potential jail time.”
U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, scheduled a hearing for Monday on the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction against SB 4.
Garcia has already ruled that the major provision of Trump’s new policy is unconstitutional. On June 5, Garcia found that the Bexar County Sheriff's Office in San Antonio violated the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure when jailers detained an undocumented immigrant for more than two months in 2016 after a misdemeanor charge against him was dismissed.
The inmate’s attorney challenged the Bexar County Sheriff's practice of honoring immigration "detainers." The detainers are routine requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for local jails to hold people suspected of federal immigration violations, even when other charges have been dismissed or adjudicated.
Lawyers across the country have argued that detainers do not meet the legal standard of a warrant or judge’s order.
Austin’s response to the lawsuit claims the state could suffer severe economic impact under SB 4, including threats to boycott the annual SXSW festival that contributes more than $300 million to the city’s economy.
Furthermore, SB 4 intimidates officials from speaking out on the subject of immigration, according to Austin’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
“If a member of the City Council initiated even a non-binding resolution against local enforcement of immigration law, and if the City Council adopted such a resolution after a vigorous debate, all of the City Council members (even those who opposed the resolution) could be subject to removal from office,” the motion says.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott withheld $1.5 million in state funding for Travis County after Sheriff Sally Hernandez issued a written statement that she would not honor all federal detainers but would require a warrant or court order in some cases.
Abbott prominently features his support for SB 4 on his Web site with a video of his signing statement.
"There are deadly consequences to not enforcing the law, and Texas has now become a state where those practices are not tolerated," Abbott said. "With this bill we are doing away with those that seek to promote lawlessness in Texas."
In February, two weeks after Abbott said he would “hammer” Travis County, whose seat is Austin, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department conducted raids in the Central Texas area that “sent waves of terror through immigrant communities in Austin and beyond,” the lawsuit claims.
A month later, ICE officials “admitted in open court” that the February ICE raids “were conducted, in part, to retaliate against Sheriff Hernandez and her new policy of not automatically complying with an ICE detainer request,” according to the city’s motion.
The Houston City Council voted 10-6 to join the lawsuit on June 21. Mayor Sylvester Turner, who denies that Texas’s largest city fits Trump’s definition of a “sanctuary,” sought a council decision before joining the lawsuit.
Greater Houston has the third-largest population of undocumented immigrants in the nation after New York and Los Angeles, according to the Pew Research Center.