Ruling On ICE Detainers Is Bad News For Texas Immigration Crackdown

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia questioned the constitutionality of holding undocumented immigrants without a warrant.

A federal judge who will decide a legal challenge to the immigration crackdown passed by the Texas legislature appears unsympathetic to at least one of the law’s goals.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio ruled Monday that the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office violated an undocumented immigrant’s 4th Amendment right against illegal search and seizure by holding him in jail a the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The ruling, first reported by the San Antonio Express-News, sends a worrisome signal to Texas Republicans who passed a controversial law to crack down on so-called sanctuary jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with ICE’s deportation efforts.

The law, Senate Bill 4, has been challenged in federal court by at least six localities since it was passed in May. Garcia will preside over the first hearing in the case later this month. 

Monday’s ruling suggests the judge may favor at least one of the arguments of those hoping to overturn the law.

SB4 allows local police to ask the immigration status of those they stop, and requires local jurisdictions to honor all requests from ICE to hold undocumented immigrants on the federal government’s behalf. Jurisdictions that refuse face fines and the loss of state grant money. Elected officials who craft policies limiting local cooperation with federal deportation efforts face the possibility of getting booted from office, as well as criminal penalties that could land them in jail for up to a year.  

Critics contend that SB4 violates several constitutional principles. The state can’t impose its own immigration policies, making it unlawful to unseat local officials or throw them in jail for refusing to honor ICE detainers, opponents argue. The town of El Cenizo has said SB4 is too vague to be enforced. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund says allowing local police to question immigrants about their status will lead to racial profiling.

But perhaps the most fundamental question is whether the state can force local governments to honor ICE requests at all. When ICE suspects someone in a local jail of residing in the country illegally, the agency issues a “detainer” ― a request for local police to hold the person for 48 hours.

Immigration violations, however, are generally civil infractions, not crimes. So, if the suspected undocumented immigrant qualifies for bond, or the charges are dropped, continuing to hold the person only on the ICE detainer violates the Constitution, some federal judges have ruled in recent years.

Garcia appears to agree. The ruling he issued Monday found that the Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, violated the 4th Amendment and 14th Amendment rights of Julio Trujillo Santoyo by holding him on an ICE detainer.

Trujillo Santoyo was arrested on Jan. 20, 2016, on a charge of misdemeanor assault. The state charges were dropped, but Bexar County refused to release him after receiving a detainer from ICE saying that Trujillo Santoyo was suspected of having an unlawful immigration status.

Keeping him jailed after the charges were dropped required more than a request from another agency, Garcia wrote in Monday’s ruling; authorities needed to provide a warrant or evidence of probable cause that Trujillo Santoyo had committed a crime.

“Plaintiff is correct that detention pursuant to an ICE detainer request is a Fourth Amendment seizure that must be supported by probable cause or a warrant,” the judge wrote.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office told the court it honors ICE detainers based on the assumption that the agency would only issue such a request for a person who had been convicted of a felony or multiple misdemeanors.

That assumption is inaccurate, the ruling notes ― ICE can issue a detainer for anyone, regardless of criminal history. But even if it were not, Garcia ruled that local authorities would still need a warrant or probable cause that an undocumented immigrant committed a crime in order to confine that person on ICE’s behalf.

A spokesman for Bexar County declined to discuss the sheriff’s current policy on ICE detainers, but said the department would issue a statement next week.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar was one of several of the state’s top law enforcement officials who testified against SB4 earlier this year, when it was debated in the state legislature. The lawsuit over Trujillo Santoyo’s detention began last year, before Salazar was elected. Prior to the ruling, Salazar had said he continued to honor ICE detainers to avoid losing state grants, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

The only jurisdiction in Texas with a formal policy limiting ICE detainers is Travis County, which encompasses Austin. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) responded by cutting some $1.5 million of the country’s state grant money.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office applauded García’s ruling in a statement, saying it “affords apparent vindication for Sheriff [Sally] Hernandez’s stance on the ICE detainer issue.”  

SB4 is scheduled to be implemented on Sept 1. But Garcia is scheduled to hear a request for preliminary injunction on June 26 that, if successful, would block the law from going into effect while the legal challenges move forward.

Cristian Farias contributed reporting.