Lawsuit challenges Texas efforts to restrict illegal border crossings

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) -Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging a new Republican-backed law in Texas that will give state officials broad powers to arrest, prosecute, and deport people who illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Austin, Texas, claims that the law signed by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Monday unlawfully infringes upon the authority of the federal government under the U.S. Constitution to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

The groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), also said the law, which takes effect in March, illegally bars migrants from applying to the U.S. government for asylum or other humanitarian protections.

The law, known as SB4, makes it a state crime to illegally enter or re-enter Texas from a foreign country and gives state and local law enforcement authorities the power to arrest and prosecute violators. It also allows state judges to order that individuals be deported, with up to 20-year prison sentences for migrants who refuse to comply.

The Republican-controlled Texas legislature passed the measure in November.

Abbott’s office and the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Adriana Pinon, legal director of the ACLU’s Texas chapter, said the law was one of the most extreme immigration enforcement measures taken by a U.S. state and would lead to racial profiling of minorities by police.

“The bill overrides bedrock constitutional principles and flouts federal immigration law while harming Texans, in particular Brown and Black communities,” Pinon said in a statement.

The ACLU is representing two Texas-based immigrant advocacy groups and El Paso County, Texas in the lawsuit. The county says it will see up to 8,000 additional arrests per year as a result of the law, at a cost of $24 million. The new law also will interfere with the county’s policy of only incarcerating people who pose a high risk to public safety, according to the complaint.

Abbott on Monday said the law was necessary because of the failure of Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration to stem a spike in illegal migration.

Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said before the lawsuit was filed that the Texas law was vulnerable to legal challenges. Yale-Loehr cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said Arizona could not authorize state officials to arrest and prosecute people for being in the United States illegally, because that was the exclusive province of the federal government.

Paxton, a Republican, told state lawmakers during a hearing in March that the 2012 decision “didn’t make a lot of sense” and that passing SB4 could give the Supreme Court’s conservative majority a chance to revisit the ruling.

Texas is already embroiled in a series of court cases related to Abbott’s efforts to deter and punish illegal border crossings, collectively known as Operation Lone Star.

On Tuesday, a U.S. appeals court temporarily blocked the Biden administration from destroying razor wire fencing that Texas placed along its border with Mexico to deter illegal border crossings.

Earlier this month, the same court upheld a judge’s ruling requiring Texas to remove a 1,000-foot-long (305-meter) floating barrier it placed in the Rio Grande river.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Will Dunham, Rosalba O’Brien, Aurora Ellis and David Gregorio)