News & Commentary

High court allows Texas to enforce controversial law targeting migrants — for now

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — A divided U.S. Supreme Court March 19 lifted a temporary pause on a controversial Texas law that makes it a state crime for unauthorized migrants to cross into Texas from Mexico, allowing the state to enforce the law while litigation proceeds.

Catholic organizations have opposed the legislation, known as Senate Bill 4, with the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops previously stating it could have “deadly consequences for innocent migrants.”

The high court’s 6-3 order allows Texas to enforce the law. However, SB 4 still faces legal challenges and may be blocked at a later date.

A district judge moved to temporarily block the law Feb. 29, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an administrative stay on that order, allowing the law to proceed until it could hear the appeal. However, Justice Samuel Alito then put the appeals court’s order on pause March 4, so the Supreme Court could consider emergency requests from the Biden administration and immigrant rights groups to block SB 4’s enforcement amid ongoing litigation.

Federal law already makes it illegal to enter the U.S. without authorization, and most portions of a similar 2010 Arizona law were later struck down by the Supreme Court. Immigration advocacy groups in Texas filed a lawsuit over the bill prior to the Justice Department’s challenge.

The justices in the majority did not offer a rationale for their finding, but Justice Amy Coney Barrett said in a concurring opinion that the 5th Circuit should issue a formal decision before the high court intervenes further.

“Before this Court intervenes on the emergency docket, the Fifth Circuit should be the first mover,” she wrote, adding, “If a decision does not issue soon, the applicants may return to this court.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was among the court’s dissenters, said the order “invites further chaos and crisis in immigration enforcement,” by upending “the federal-state balance of power that has existed for over a century, in which the National Government has had exclusive authority over entry and removal of noncitizens.”

“Texas can now immediately enforce its own law imposing criminal liability on thousands of noncitizens and requiring their removal to Mexico,” Sotomayor wrote. “This law will disrupt sensitive foreign relations, frustrate the protection of indi­viduals fleeing persecution, hamper active federal enforce­ment efforts, undermine federal agencies’ ability to detect and monitor imminent security threats, and deter nonciti­zens from reporting abuse or trafficking.”

In a statement about the law going into effect, Texas Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso said, “We are at an urgent and challenging moment in the defense of the rights and dignity of vulnerable persons on the move.”

“Recent events in El Paso, as well as throughout the country also raise the specter of the criminalization of humanitarian aid to migrants and troubling threats to religious liberties enshrined in the First Amendment,” Bishop Seitz said. “These realities call us to prayerfully reflect and consider the requirements of a faith which calls us to respect the inalienable dignity of every human being as well as the imperative to reimagine ways of effectively collaborating to build a society that welcomes, protects, integrates and promotes our sisters and brothers who migrate, and to do so together with them.”

The Justice Department Jan. 3 sued Texas over SB 4, which grants local law enforcement officials power to arrest migrants suspected of lacking legal authorization to be in the U.S. The legislation forbids such arrests at schools, places of worship, health care facilities or designated SAFE-Ready facilities, which the state operates for those who have experienced sexual assault.

Supporters of the legislation argue it would deter unauthorized entry into the state by empowering its own law enforcement, while opponents argue the law is unconstitutional and inhumane, wading into a power reserved for federal authorities.

By Kate Scanlon | OSV News