Appeals court blocks Texas immigration law hours after Supreme Court gave its OK

The law would let state and local police arrest undocumented immigrants and allow state judges to deport them.

Ruling late Tuesday night, a federal appeals court blocked Texas from enforcing its new immigration law, the latest whiplash-inducing legal development over Senate Bill 4, which seeks to give the state a role in arresting and deporting migrants.

The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came hours after the U.S. Supreme Court gave Texas permission to enforce the law, which had been struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in February, launching a series of appeals that continue.

The Supreme Court ruling put the matter back before the 5th Circuit Court, which acted quickly to dissolve an order it issued March 2 that temporarily allowed Texas to enforce SB 4.


Still to be decided, however, is Texas’ request for a stay pending appeal, which if granted would let the state enforce SB 4 while the 5th Circuit Court determines if the law is constitutional. Oral arguments on that request will be heard Wednesday morning.

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The rollercoaster ride of appellate court rulings has yet to consider the heart of the case – whether Texas properly enacted the law to deal with a crush of migrants at its border with Mexico or usurped the federal government’s authority to handle immigration matters and make foreign policy decisions.



The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday gave Texas permission, for now, to enforce a new law allowing state and local police to arrest undocumented immigrants.

The ruling will not be the final word on the fate of the law known as Senate Bill 4, which has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in Austin and is awaiting action by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

Nor will Tuesday’s action be the final ruling on whether Texas can enforce the law while the state’s bid to overturn the judge’s ruling continues in the appeals court. The 5th Circuit Court hastily scheduled oral arguments for 10 a.m. Wednesday on the enforcement question after Justice Amy Coney Barrett, writing for the majority, pointedly urged its judges to address the issue.


The Supreme Court’s three liberal justices disagreed with allowing Texas to enforce SB 4 in the meantime, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing that it “invites further chaos and crisis in immigration enforcement” by allowing Texas to administer a law before its constitutionality has been determined.

“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,” Sotomayor wrote.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, praised the six-justice majority, saying their decision will let Texas protect its “citizens and the nation’s citizens from criminal syndicates, human smugglers, drug dealers, and even terrorists.”

The ruling, he added on X, “is a recognition of the obvious fact that the Federal Government is not doing its job” at the border.

The court’s ruling came less than 24 hours after Justice Samuel Alito delayed the law from going into effect at 4 p.m. Monday to allow time for the decision that was announced Tuesday.

SB 4 allows local law enforcement to arrest migrants who have entered the country illegally and allows state judges to give deportation orders to migrants — actions that fall under federal, not state, jurisdiction, the Biden administration argues.

The Texas Department of Public Safety did not immediately respond to an email asking if troopers would begin arresting undocumented migrants under the new law. It was also unclear if local police and sheriff’s departments across the state would begin enforcing the law.

In a statement Tuesday, Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Alicia Bárcena said her country will not accept any migrants deported by Texas. Another Mexican official said discussions about immigration will be handled at the federal level.


“The dialogue on matters of immigration will continue between the federal governments” of Mexico and the United States, said Roberto Velasco Álvarez, chief of Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry’s North American division.

Tuesday’s ruling hinged on the 5th Circuit Court’s use of an “administrative stay” to allow Texas to enforce SB 4.

Administrative stays are intended to briefly pause a lower-court ruling while an appeals court determines how to proceed, including whether to enforce — as in this case — a lower-court’s injunction barring enforcement of a law.


The next step is typically a decision on whether to grant a “stay pending appeal,” which would determine whether an injunction can be enforced until the appeals court rules on the law’s constitutionality. Those stays require the court to consider who is likely to win the legal challenge over SB 4, an analysis that could take time that an administrative stay is supposed to provide.

The problem for the Supreme Court, Barrett wrote, is that it has never been asked to analyze an administrative stay — and it should avoid taking this opportunity to review such a short-term ruling, she added.

“I think it unwise to invite emergency litigation in this Court about whether a court of appeals abused its discretion at this preliminary step — for example, by misjudging whether an administrative stay is the best way to minimize harm while the court deliberates,” she wrote.

The “real problem ... lurking in this case,” Barrett added, is the risk that a court will avoid ruling on a stay pending appeal for too long. Should that occur in this case, she wrote, the Department of Justice can return to the Supreme Court for guidance.


In addition to Wednesday’s hastily arranged oral arguments on whether to grant a stay pending appeal, the 5th Circuit Court is scheduled to hear arguments on the legality of SB 4 on April 3.

Ruling a huge win, Republicans say

Texas Republicans celebrated the court’s decision, hailing it as a victory over the Biden administration.


Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling a huge win, adding: “Our immigration law, SB 4, is now in effect.”

Gov. Greg Abbott was more measured, noting action will shift to the 5th Circuit Court for a ruling on the law’s legality. “But this is clearly a positive development,” he added.

Republican state Rep. David Spiller of Jacksboro, the House sponsor of SB 4, said in a phone interview that state law enforcement along the border “now has a tool that they can use to help combat illegal immigration.”

The White House slammed the ruling, saying the law will “sow chaos and confusion” at the southern border.


“S.B. 4 will not only make communities in Texas less safe, it will also burden law enforcement,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Civil rights groups and other Democrats also panned the ruling.

“Today’s decision is disappointing and threatens the integrity of our nation’s immigration laws and bedrock principles of due process,” said Anand Balakrishnan, an attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the Supreme Court undermined its credibility by allowing Texas to enforce a law that is an “alarming state overreach.”


“At a time of rising anti-Hispanic violence, this law puts a target on the back of anyone perceived by law enforcement to look or sound like an immigrant,” Castro said.

Rep. Greg Casar, D-Austin, said he was already receiving calls from constituents who feared their families would be torn apart.

“Asking local police to hunt down Texans who look like immigrants doesn’t make us safer; in fact, it takes police away from investigating real crime,” Casar said.

DOJ sued Texas in January

The Justice Department sued Texas in January, saying immigration enforcement is a federal obligation that Texas is trying to usurp.


Texas officials argued that SB 4 is a necessary response to an “invasion” of undocumented immigrants at the southern border that the Biden administration has done little to stem.

Texas has asked the appeals court to overturn a February ruling by U.S. District Judge David Ezra, who said SB 4 was “patently unconstitutional” because states do not have the power to enforce immigration matters.

“To allow Texas to permanently supersede federal directives on the basis of an invasion would amount to nullification of federal law and authority — a notion that is antithetical to the Constitution and has been unequivocally rejected by federal courts since the Civil War,” Ezra wrote.

SB 4 created two state crimes for migrants who cross into Texas illegally — illegal entry from a foreign country, a Class B misdemeanor with a jail term of up to six months and a $2,000 fine; and illegal reentry into the state from a foreign country, a Class A misdemeanor with up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine for repeat offenders.


The penalty for both could escalate to felonies for migrants who had previously been convicted of certain crimes, including a felony or two misdemeanor drug convictions.

The law also allowed state judges to issue deportation orders for migrants who agree to return to the foreign nation from which they entered Texas — presumably Mexico.

The Texas Legislature passed SB 4 in November and Abbott signed it into law in December.