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Federal judge temporarily blocks Texas’ SB4, the state's immigration enforcement law

A Texas trooper talks with migrants as they walk along concertina wire and try to cross the Rio Grande at the Texas-U.S. border in Eagle Pass, on July 6, 2023.
Eric Gay
A Texas trooper talks with migrants as they walk along concertina wire and try to cross the Rio Grande at the Texas-U.S. border in Eagle Pass , Texas, Thursday, July 6, 2023.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked a Texas law that would have allowed local police to arrest people suspected of being in the state illegally.

Senate Bill 4 was passed in late 2023 as part of a priority package of immigration and border security bills championed by Gov. Greg Abbott and far-right leaders. It would have also allowed local judges to order someone to return to Mexico, regardless of their nationality.

But U.S. District Judge David Ezra ruled on Thursday that the law is likely unconstitutional because the federal government has jurisdiction over immigration matters.

“Several factors warrant an injunction. First, the Supremacy Clause and Supreme Court precedent affirm that states may not exercise immigration enforcement power except as authorized by the federal government,” Ezra wrote. “Second, SB 4 conflicts with key provisions of federal immigration law, to the detriment of the United States’ foreign relations and treaty obligations.”

The legislation was scheduled to go into effect March 5 but is on hold as the case continues. The state of Texas quickly appealed the ruling to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the legislation could end up reaching the United States Supreme Court.

The measure makes unauthorized entry into Texas from Mexico a misdemeanor for a first offense, with penalties increasing to a felony for subsequent violations.

The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights project on behalf of El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, American Gateways, and El Paso County. It names Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and El Paso County District Attorney Bill Hicks as defendants.

A separate lawsuit was later filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, and the two were consolidated.

The plaintiffs immediately cheered the decision Thursday.

“This crucial decision allows us to continue to focus our efforts on building a safe, legal, humane immigration system not contingent on abuses like racial profiling and harassment,” Jennifer Babaie, the director of advocacy and legal services with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said in a statement. “We must continue to be vigilant against Texas' politics of fear and hatred. But today, immigrants and Texans of color get to pursue living lives of hope, opportunity, and family. It's a win worth celebrating.”

David Donatti, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, added: “Our current immigration system needs repair because it forces millions of Americans into the shadows and shuts the door on people in need of safety. S.B. 4 would only make things worse. Cruelty to migrants is not a policy solution.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling “incorrect” in his announcement that his office appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has historically sided with Texas on immigration-enforcement measures.

“Texas has a clear right to defend itself from the drug smugglers, human traffickers, cartels, and legions of illegal aliens crossing into our State as a consequence of the Biden Administration’s deliberate policy choices,” Paxton said in a statement. “I will do everything possible to defend Texas’ right to defend herself against the catastrophic illegal invasion encouraged by the federal government.”

In his ruling Ezra added that the removal provision of the Texas law would interfere with agreements about repatriation the federal government has with other countries.

“Federal law sets out the circumstances for where the federal government may remove a noncitizen, and the United States regularly engages in diplomatic discussions with foreign governments to determine whether they will accept noncitizens,” he wrote. “The Department of State, for its part, has made clear that Texas’ removal policy will hamper diplomatic discussions regarding immigration with Mexico.”

Ezra also disputed Texas’ claim that it was being invaded by migrants.

“The Constitution does not refer to immigration as an ‘invasion.’ Texas is not engaging in war by enacting SB 4,” he wrote. “And even if it was, Texas would necessarily cede that war authority to the federal government. At each step of the way, Texas’ radical position falters.”

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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