Texas border enforcement law again blocked in legal whiplash

The blocking comes just hours after the US Supreme Court cleared the way for it to go into effect

John KruzelAndrew ChungReuters
Published : 20 March 2024, 05:19 AM
Updated : 20 March 2024, 05:19 AM

A Republican-backed Texas law that would allow state law enforcement authorities to arrest people suspected of illegally crossing the US-Mexico border was blocked again by an appeals court on Wednesday, just hours after the US Supreme Court had cleared the way for it to go into effect.

A late night ruling on Tuesday from the New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals halted the enforcement of the law ahead of oral arguments on the issue scheduled for Wednesday.

The legal back and forth in the case has caused uncertainty about the future of the controversial measure put in place by Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott. The law is opposed by the democratic administration of President Joe Biden which says it would impede the federal government from enforcing immigration laws.

Abbott last December signed the law, known as SB 4, authorising state law enforcement to arrest people suspected of entering the US illegally, giving local officers powers long delegated to the federal government. Abbott said the law was needed due to Biden's failure to enforce federal laws criminalising illegal entry or re-entry.

Republicans have sharply criticised the Democratic president's handling of the record numbers of migrants caught illegally crossing the US-Mexico border. Abbott and other Republicans favour the restrictive policies of former President Donald Trump, their party's candidate challenging Biden in the Nov 5 US election.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Texas law will "sow chaos and confusion at our southern border."

The Justice Department sued in January to block the measure, originally set to take effect on Mar 5. The administration said the law violates the US Constitution and federal law by interfering with the US government's power to regulate immigration as well as running afoul of a 2012 Supreme Court precedent.

The Texas law made illegal entry or re-entry into Texas a state crime, with penalties ranging from 180 days in jail to 20 years in prison. It requires Texas magistrate judges to order migrants to return to Mexico, with up to 20-year sentences for those who refuse to comply.

Mexico, however, said on Tuesday it would not accept those repatriated by the state of Texas.

Texas-based US District judge David Ezra on Feb 29 sided with the Biden administration and agreed to preliminarily block Texas officials from enforcing the law, saying it "threatens the fundamental notion that the United States must regulate immigration with one voice."

But the 5th Circuit paused Ezra's ruling in an order that would have let the law take effect on March 10, prompting the administration to file an emergency request to the Supreme Court. Justice Samuel Alito, acting for the Supreme Court, on Mar 4 had halted the 5th Circuit ruling - and thus the law - from taking effect, giving the justices more time to consider the matter.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday then ruled 6-3, along ideological lines, to allow the law to take effect before the 5th Circuit's decision.

The 5th Circuit panel, in a 2-1 vote, lifted the administrative stay ahead of arguments on whether to once again put on hold the lower-court injunction while Texas pursues an appeal.

The majority in the appeals court's order included Chief US Circuit Judge Priscilla Richman, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush, and US Circuit Judge Irma Carrillo Ramirez, a Biden appointee. US Circuit Judge Andrew Oldham, a conservative appointee of Republican former President Donald Trump, dissented.