First comes the passage of a stunningly punitive anti-immigrant state law. Then come the lawsuits, and the years’-long courtroom battles. At every juncture there are protests and there is moral outrage—to say nothing of the harm inflicted on immigrant families whose futures are at stake. Some aspects of the law might be blocked by the courts, but others go into effect. That is the dance now familiar to those who follow the fights over immigration policy, even as each subsequent state law manages to find new ways to harass and intimidate immigrants. Texas’s SB 4, signed into law in an unannounced Sunday night Facebook livestream by Gov. Greg Abbott on May 7, is but the latest to step into this routine. But this time, the dance is different.
SB 4 is the most dramatic state crackdown yet on so-called “sanctuary cities,” and comes right at a moment when the Trump administration has sought to do the same at the federal level. Instead of merely pursuing undocumented immigrants, as other state-level anti-immigrant laws have done, SB 4, which passed the Texas House 94 to 53, attempts to abolish sanctuary cities in the state by making local officials who refuse to accommodate the federal government’s requests to help enforce immigration law criminally liable, and even subject to removal from office. SB 4 bars local agencies from adopting any policy that might stand in the way of the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
In its intended effects, SB 4 is very similar to some of its most punitive anti-immigrant predecessors like SB 1070, Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, or Proposition 187, California’s landmark, voter-approved anti-immigrant law, which sought to bar undocumented immigrants from accessing any public services, including public education. The intent of all three are to constrict the lives of immigrants and undocumented immigrants in particular that life in those states becomes unbearable. Key provisions of both SB 1070 and Prop 187 were eventually blocked by the courts after extended legal battles. And legal challenges to SB 4 have already been filed. But, say legal experts, immigrants and their allies cannot assume that past legal victories suggest that parts of SB 4, too, will be overruled.
Like SB 1070, SB 4 authorizes law enforcement officers to ask about the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest for any other reason. But it goes further. It requires that law enforcement officers become extensions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and adds criminal penalties to any local official who speaks out against this or directs their staff toward a different policy. And since Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has called on ICE to pursue any undocumented immigrant for removal, regardless of their criminal background, undocumented immigrants who come into contact with ICE in this way are likely to be deported, whether or not they have ever committed a crime.
Police chiefs and sheriffs who direct their staff not to question arrestees about their immigration status would be in violation of the law. Their jurisdictions would face civil penalties, which start at $1,000 for the first day and escalate to $25,000 per day per violation, with “each day of a continuing violation … constitut[ing] a separate violation for the civil penalty.” Public officials who violate SB 4, including making so much as a public statement endorsing a sanctuary policy, face prosecution for a Class A misdemeanor and even removal from office.