Immigrants won a major victory Wednesday night when a federal judge blocked Texas’s SB 4, the nation’s harshest anti–sanctuary cities state law, from being implemented. In his 94-page order, US District Judge Orlando Garcia issued a preliminary injunction of key parts of the law, preventing them from going into effect while the legal challenge winds its way through the courts. As the worst of Harvey was bearing down on Texas this week, fears about the coming implementation of SB 4 fed undocumented immigrants’ apprehension about seeking help during the storm. On Monday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner pledged to personally represent any person who was turned over to immigration authorities while seeking help during Harvey. “I and others will be the first ones to stand with you,” Turner said. “I don’t care what your status is. I do not want you to run the risk of losing your life or a family member because you’re concerned about SB 4 or anything else.” Despite his assurances, rumors that the City would check people’s immigration statuses at shelters continued to spread, and the City had to repeatedly quash them.
This injunction is a big deal. SB 4, which Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law in May, required that localities let their law-enforcement officers—everyone from college-campus police to sheriff’s deputies—ask about a detained or arrested person’s immigration status. Under the law, local officials who violate the law by limiting the kinds of questions their officers ask could face fines of $1,000 per day, and even face removal from office.
The law would green-light racial profiling and allow police officers to harass Texans, civil-rights advocates warned. But the law represented something bigger. Unlike Arizona’s SB 1070, which gave police similar powers and also made it a crime for a regular person to be caught without papers, SB 4 ratcheted up the stakes by going after law-enforcement officials themselves. Under SB 4, police chiefs, sheriffs, and local officials who try to separate themselves from the enforcement of immigration law (violations of which are federal, civil offenses) would face criminal penalties. It’s a new kind of state immigration law for a new, harsher political era.
The temporary injunction blocked many of the key provisions from going into effect. As a result of the injunction, the many cities in Texas that have so-called sanctuary-city policies on their books may continue to direct their officers not to ask people about their immigration statuses. Local jails are not required to hold on to potential detainees for ICE. And a police officer can ask someone about their immigration status, but a person does not have to answer and cannot be arrested for being undocumented. One other shocking provision, which barred local officials from even criticizing SB 4 in public, will not go into effect on Friday either.
“By enjoining the bulk of SB 4, the federal court has preserved the ability of elected officials, sheriffs, and police chiefs to prevent their police forces from becoming untrained and unrestrained enforcers of federal immigration law,” Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement. MALDEF represented the cities of San Antonio and El Paso and other civil-rights organizations in a lawsuit challenging SB 4. Multiple Texas cities, including Houston, Dallas, and Austin, also challenged the law in separate lawsuits.
Even with SB 4 temporarily enjoined, undocumented immigrants in Texas still have plenty more to contend with. The fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which grants young undocumented immigrants two-year protections from deportation, remains up in the air. Immigrants are bracing for it to be withdrawn any day now.
DACA continues to operate solely at the discretion of the Trump administration, and is being challenged by none other than Texas’s own Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has led a group including 10 other states in a campaign to threaten the federal government. Paxton and other conservative state officials want Trump to dismantle the program or face a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality. They’ve set a September 5 deadline for the Trump administration to respond.
“It’s a very difficult thing to picture unless you’re living it,” said Oscar Hernandez, a Houston resident and DACA recipient, of the particular stress of being undocumented, having DACA, and facing the long recovery from Hurricane Harvey. He spoke Wednesday evening, just hours before the injunction came out. Hurricane Harvey spared his home, but every day has been a question mark for him.
“It’s been on and off since January 20,” Hernandez said. Donald Trump had threatened to take away DACA on his first day in office, and since then the uncertainty has kept many DACA recipients on edge. “The threat of it going away has been [such] a constant thing that I don’t even know how to worry about it sometimes.”
“It’s hard,” Hernandez said, “But if anything, seeing Houston and our community members helping each other out shows that these legislators passing horrible racist laws don’t reflect the community.”
Mary Moreno, communications director with the Texas Organizing Project, said on Wednesday evening just hours before the injunction came out that, regardless of Judge Garcia’s decisions, the legal fight would take years to resolve. “Even if we defeat SB 4, with the current governor and legislature we have, there’s always going to be another threat,” Moreno said.
A coalition of immigrant-rights groups in the Houston area canceled a rally planned for Friday to protest SB 4, Moreno said. Instead, the Texas Organizing Project and other Houston groups were going to volunteer at shelters to support people displaced by Harvey.
Hernandez, too, has his eye on the long recovery ahead as well. “After the hurricane, the damage is going to be here for quite some time,” he said. “It’s going to be here after September 1, and so will we.”