News State

Border Chaos: Update on SB 4 and where it is now

Jose Gonzalez-Campelo/The Cougar

During the fourth special legislative session in 2023, the Texas Legislature passed the controversial Senate Bill 4, which has been on a whirlwind journey between courts. It put the state at the center of another immigration reform controversy.

A series of court orders from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court blocked, allowed and blocked the law to go into affect which would have made it a misdemeanor to illegally cross into the U.S. from Mexico.

The bill is controversial for many reasons, such as the nature of the immigration policy debate, where both parties feel strongly about their opinions but also for legal reasons, said assistant political science professor Michael Kistner.

“It has long been an established principle that immigration policy and enforcement decisions are handled at the federal level,” he said. “So, by the United States government and not the individual state governments for the simple reason being that it’s difficult to have an immigration enforcement policy that differs from state to state.”

SB 4 would allow Texas law enforcement officers to arrest migrants suspected of entering the U.S. illegally. They would then go before a state judge who would issue a state order to leave the U.S. to Mexico, instead of being prosecuted.

The bill was originally set to go into effect on March 5, but the Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union, an immigration rights group, both filed lawsuits against it. A district judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked the law from being enforced as the case was being heard. Texas then applied the injunction to the appeals court, which turned to the Supreme Court.

The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to block the law, as the appeals court decided on what to do with the bill.

On March 19, the Supreme Court issued an order that allowed Texas to enforce SB 4 while the lower court proceeded with the legal case. The high court did not issue an opinion on the merits of the law but did allow SB 4 to go into effect as the lower court heard the case.

Just nine hours after the law went into effect, the appeals court once again blocked Texas from enforcing SB 4 and scheduled a hearing for March 20.

“The fifth circuit says, OK, we’ve had enough time to gather the facts and come to an informed decision. We think based on the merits of the case that the federal government is likely to win and the state of Texas is likely in the wrong,” Kistner said. “So, we are going to then issue the stay on the merits.”

The lower court then heard a defense from the state on the merits of SB 4 and arguments from the ACLU and the DOJ on why the law should be struck down.

There is a lot of unknown as to how the law would be enforced, and the state is also unable to answer questions about its applicability. During the trial arguments at the circuit court regarding the injunction, one of the judges asked the state of Texas if SB 4 would still be applicable if someone entered the country without proper documentation in a different state and then traveled to Texas, said associate history professor Raúl Ramos.

“The reality was the state didn’t have an answer for that because that would be the kind of confusion that having different laws in different places would cause in regards to immigration,” Ramos said.

The opponents of the bill have said that this bill would open the door for an increase in racial profiling and be harmful to migrant families in the state.

“It could lead to racial profiling by law enforcement officers stopping people who they perceive to be dark-skinned and assuming that they might be illegal,” Kistner said. “It also has the potential to separate families. If someone gets apprehended and taken across the border, the family is still in the United States and that’s a really big harm.”

Approximately 44.5% of Houston is Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

While the bill is talking about immigrants, it targets brown people who speak Spanish. It specifically targets the Latino community, which has been going on for years, said pre-law senior Daniela Gomez.

“They’re primarily targeting those of the Latino community which has been going on for years, “Gomez said. “So, there’s definitely a racial stigma, ethnic stigma, discrimination and also a linguistic one as well.”

There is a right and wrong way to deal with problems pertaining to immigration at the border. Bills like SB 4 and a previous immigration bill from Arizona that was struck down by the Supreme Court are not the right way to deal with immigration. These laws just further criminalize immigration, Gomez said.

“So, you have an influx of people in detention centers. That has been going on for plenty of years, even before the Trump administration, and these attention centers are incredibly, incredibly overcrowded and under-resourced. We have a humanitarian crisis going on right here in our own backyard,” she said.

In addition to that, a lot of the immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, aren’t even Mexican themselves but people traveling from Central and South America. This bill is only making it harder for immigrants to cross the Texas border and does nothing to deter people from coming to the U.S. but just further elongating their already incredibly dangerous journey across Central America and South America, Gomez said.

The bill could allow local law enforcement to put these migrants who are under arrest in county jails, which here in Houston is also under a lot of scrutiny due to neglect. A part of what makes this bill controversial is that it also demeans the issue of immigration without fixing the issues within the system, Gomez said.

“It’s deeming the issue of immigration, illegal immigration in a way that’s not actually fixing anything,” she said. “It’s further adding stress on the immigration detention centers and local county jails that don’t have the resources or personnel or anything to support the people that are already in those places.”

The bill is currently on hold as the appeals court decides on its fate.

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