People protest in Houston against SB 4 in August.EXPAND
People protest in Houston against SB 4 in August.
Photo by Abrahan Garza

Fifth Circuit Rules Texas Police Must Start Honoring Immigrant Detainer Requests

A Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that Texas can require local police to honor requests from federal immigration officers to hold suspects in jail for possible deportation, a key provision of the controversial SB 4 law legislators passed earlier this year.

The ruling, by a three-judge panel in New Orleans, reverses a ruling by a federal district court judge in Texas last month that blocked most of the law. Mayors and police chiefs in large Texas cities, including Houston, urged legislators not to pass SB 4, which they say discriminates against Hispanics.

In the August ruling, a response to an injunction request filed by opponents of SB 4, District Judge Orlando Garcia concluded the law violated the First Amendment, since it threatened police and other public officials with jail if they opposed the law in any way. Garcia also found SB 4 too vague and too broad, and that it violated the Fourth Amendment, since it forces police to hold suspects when they may lack probable cause to do so.

The defendants in the case, Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which prompted Monday's ruling. The Fifth Circuit judges put the SB 4 section about local police helping federal immigration agents back in play, but cautioned this does not mean the feds can order suspects held even if they have documents proving lawful status.

"The 'comply with, honor, and fulfill' requirement does not require detention to every retainer request," the Fifth Circuit ruling states. "Rather [it] mandates that local agencies cooperate according to existing ICE detainer practice and law."

Still, the ruling is a victory for Paxton and Abbott, and they celebrated it as such.

"Enforcing immigration law helps prevent dangerous criminals from being released into Texas communities," Paxton said in a statement. "I am confident Senate Bill 4 will be found constitutional and ultimately upheld."

Thomas A. Saenz, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement that the group was dismayed by Monday's ruling.

“In the absence of any urgency other than the mean-spiritedness of Texas state officials, the Court of Appeals nonetheless stayed portions of Judge Garcia’s carefully-considered preliminary injunction," Saenz said.

But Saenz echoed the Fifth Circuit's warning that police still must have a constitutional reason for holding a suspect in the first place.

"The court panel made clear that the scope of SB 4’s mandated compliance with detainer requests does not include actually detaining immigrants where the law would prohibit continued detention," he said. "This preserves the sanctity of the Fourth Amendment in protecting the rights of everyone, including immigrants."

The Fifth Circuit has yet to rule on the merits of SB 4 itself, and the case could eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.

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