Texas Town Becomes First To Sue Over State Immigration Crackdown

A law banning "sanctuary" cities was passed with “conscious and blatant disregard of federal law and constitutional protections,” a new lawsuit says.

AUSTIN, Texas ― A South Texas town and county have become the first localities to challenge the state’s controversial immigration crackdown in court, accusing state officials of violating the U.S. Constitution.  

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 into law on Sunday. Once it takes effect Sept. 1, the law will ban so-called sanctuary jurisdictions that limit cooperation with immigration authorities by declining requests to hold people living in the U.S. without authorization on the federal government’s behalf.

Any city or county that declines a federal request to hold an undocumented immigrant in local custody could lose state grant money and be fined up to $25,000 per day. Elected officials who refuse the requests could be cast from office and jailed for up to one year.

The lawsuit, filed jointly Tuesday by the town of El Cenizo, the County of Maverick and the League of United Latin American Citizens, accuses Texas officials of failing to adequately define a “sanctuary” district, making it impossible to comply with what they claim is a vague law.

Further, the lawsuit contends the law is marred by a “conscious and blatant disregard for federal law and constitutional protections.” Texas can’t impose its own criminal penalties over immigration policy, the complaint argues, since that authority belongs to the federal government. Holding people in local jails on Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers would violate due process clauses of the Constitution, according to the lawsuit.

“The State of Texas acts unconstitutionally when it acts to compel and coerce its local government and officials to violate federal law,” the lawsuit says.

El Cenizo describes itself in the lawsuit as a “sanctuary city,” referencing a “safe haven” ordinance passed in 1999 barring city officials from inquiring or disclosing information about residents’ immigration status. Like other towns in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, El Cenizo’s population is heavily Hispanic and includes a significant number of undocumented immigrants. The lawsuit says policies restricting the local government’s involvement in federal immigration enforcement helps foster trust between local police and the community.

The city’s ordinance is designed to “protect the safety and health of all residents of El Cenizo and Webb County by helping to ensure that everyone, including undocumented immigrants, feels safe reporting crimes, cooperating with police investigations, and seeking medical treatment,” the complaint says.

Critics, including some of the state’s top law enforcement officials, argue that SB4 will breed distrust between immigrant communities and police, and won’t stand scrutiny in federal court. Even before Abbott signed the bill on Sunday, local officials and legal groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund promised to file lawsuits.

Other jurisdictions also plan to sue. SB4 specifically targets Travis County, where the capital of Austin is located, for becoming the first Texas jurisdiction to formally limit how many ICE detainers it would honor. Thomas A. Saenz, the director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has said his organization is preparing a lawsuit that will raise many of the same objections in the El Cenizo and Maverick County case.

It’s unclear whether the legal challenges will be consolidated into one case. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit within hours of SB4’s signing, asking a federal judge to preemptively declare the controversial law constitutional, partly to avoid subjecting the state to multiple lawsuits.