A federal judge blocked parts of Texas's strict new immigration crackdown law late Wednesday, ruling that the state cannot attempt to punish sanctuary cities for refusing to turn illegal immigrants over to federal authorities for deportation.
Acting less than 30 hours before the law was to take effect, U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia said it's up to the federal government, not the state, to decide what sorts of cooperation localities must provide in the context of immigration.
But the judge left in place the part of the law that allows police to determine the legal status of those they encounter during their duties. Judge Garcia said as long as the checks don't prolong the encounter, they are presumed to be constitutional.
The ruling is a substantial, though not complete, victory for sanctuary-city defenders.
If it stands, it would head off any efforts in conservative-leaning states to punish jurisdictions that are balking at President Trump's efforts to enforce existing immigration laws.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, vowed an immediate appeal and said Supreme Court precedent is on the state's side.
"Today's decision makes Texas' communities less safe," the governor said. "Because of this ruling, gang members and dangerous criminals, like those who have been released by the Travis County sheriff, will be set free to prey upon our communities."
Sanctuary cities have become a major flashpoint in the immigration debate, with Mr. Trump vowing to try to punish them for thwarting his efforts to deport more criminal aliens.
Even the Obama administration criticized sanctuary cities, saying they made communities and police officers less safe.
But sanctuaries have expanded in the months since Mr. Trump took office, as localities seek tangible ways to show they are resisting the president's agenda.
In Texas, state Republicans had long sought to punish sanctuaries. They made good on their promise this year by passing SB4.
The law, which was to take effect Friday, would require localities and public colleges to cooperate with federal authorities. Officials who tried to thwart cooperation could be ousted, while police chiefs or sheriffs could face criminal charges.
The judge said that trod on the powers of the federal government.
"The mandates, penalties and exacting punishments under SB4 upset the delicate balance between federal enforcement and local cooperation and violate the United States Constitution," said Judge Garcia, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton.
His ruling also undercuts a key argument of the Department of Homeland Security, which claims its administrative warrants - signed by a sworn deportation officer - should be enough to justify a locality holding an illegal immigrant for up to 48 hours.
The Trump administration's Justice Department even weighed in on the side of Texas in the case, saying it saw the state's law as helping, not conflicting with, federal law.
But Judge Garcia rejected those arguments, saying local arrest powers are different from immigration agents' powers. He said asking localities to hold illegal immigrants would require police and sheriffs to make their own determinations of probable cause, and the administrative warrants aren't sufficient for that purpose.
Localities can choose to honor "detainer requests," the judge said, but cannot be forced to do so.
SB4 also said police are permitted - though not required - to determine the immigration status of anyone they encounter.
Judge Garcia said as long as the immigration check doesn't prolong a stop, it wouldn't be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has upheld a similar law in Arizona, where police are instructed to check immigration status of those they believe to be in the country illegally.
Immigration activists had called for all of SB4 to be delayed in the midst of recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey, saying that if the state starts pushing a crackdown on illegal immigrants, many of them may refuse to seek needed help right now.
State Rep. Armando Walle, speaking to reporters before the judge's ruling, said he saw several situations during the hurricane rescue effort of families refusing help - and he figured they involved illegal immigrants afraid of being snared.
"That is real. The fear is real," Mr. Walle said. "SB4 exacerbates folks like our undocumented community seeking refuge - literal refuge - from having 10 feet water in their home."
State officials, including Mr. Abbott, had insisted that even with SB4 in effect, nobody needed to fear trying to get help at Harvey shelters.
"When people are going to evacuation centers, when people are seeking help or anything like that, no one is being asked about their status," the governor said.