Texas May Not Prohibit Elected Officials from Endorsing “Sanctuary City” Policies

El Cenizo, Texas—a town of about 3,000 people—borders the Rio Grande in south central Texas.  Last year, it along with several other Texas cities (including Dallas, Houston, and Austin) sued the state of Texas over a controversial state law related to so-called “sanctuary city” policies.

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But before we get into the cities’ lawsuit, you have to understand a couple things about this complicated area of law.  First, although there are federal immigration laws, there are no state immigration laws and never can be (because the Supreme Court has said so).  Second, the federal government cannot force state or local government officials to enforce federal laws, including immigration laws (again, because the Supreme Court has said so).  However, a state government generally can require local governments within that state to do pretty much whatever the state government wants.

So in a red state like Texas with blue cities like Dallas, Houston, and Austin, you get the state government wanting to force cities to comply with and to enforce federal immigration laws—because they can, and the federal government can’t.  That’s exactly what happened last year.  The Texas legislature passed a law called “SB4” that broadly prohibits Texas cities from thwarting federal immigration laws.  In some cases, the law makes it a crime to fail to cooperate with federal immigration officials.  The law also prohibits elected officials from “endorsing” policies that limit immigration enforcement.

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld SB4 against numerous legal challenges, except for one.  The Court struck down the part of SB4 that prohibited “endorsing” sanctuary-city policies as a violation of the First Amendment.  The Court said that the law limited the viewpoints of elected officials, which was an infringement of core political speech.  Local officials in Texas may have to enforce federal immigration laws or else face state criminal charges, but they can express their support or disapproval of whatever laws or policies they want.

Case: City of El Cenizo v. Texas, No. 17-50762 (5th Cir. Mar. 13, 2018) (opinion here)

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