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Trump administration moves to defend controversial Texas immigration law in court

The Justice Department told lawyers who are suing the state over its new anti-sanctuary law, SB4, that it would file a statement of interest in the case and try to weigh in through oral arguments.
20 Jun 2017 – 6:50 PM EDT

The Trump administration wants to send a Justice Department counsel to defend Texas’ controversial new immigration law as it goes before a judge next week.

Several cities and counties have sued Texas to try to stop SB4, signed by Republican governor Greg Abbott in May and set to be implemented in September. The law forces local leaders to eliminate sanctuary policies, to cooperate with federal immigration agents and to allow police offices and sheriffs to ask about anyone's immigration status during routine detentions.

With the first hearing scheduled for Monday, attorneys involved in the suit against Texas over SB4 were notified that the Justice Department would submit a statement of interest in the case, and possibly send counsel to Texas to defend the state measure.

"I don’t think it’s unexpected that the U.S. government wants to weigh in on this, given President Trump's executive order on sanctuary cities," ACLU lawyer Andre Segura, one of the lead attorneys in the case, told Univision in a phone interview.

The federal government’s request to weigh in on the Texas case is based on a federal law that allows the Justice Department to send any of its officers to “attend to the interests of the United States” in open cases in any U.S. court.

A Justice Department spokesman confirmed the Trump administration's interest in defending the Texas measure. "We are evaluating our litigation options in the case," Ian Prior said on Monday afternoon.

Plaintiffs in the legal challenge against SB4 include the cities of El Cenizo, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, as well as Maverick, El Paso and Travis counties. The city of Houston will vote on Wednesday whether it should join the lawsuit.

Defendants include the state of Texas, its governor Greg Abbott and state attorney general Ken Paxton.

SB4 has unleashed intense clashes between two groups in Texas: the local leaders who are furious about the measure and the Republicans who made it a legislative priority.

"There has never been a case like this in the United States, ever," said attorney Luis Vera, who represents El Cenizo and Maverick, the original plaintiffs, in the case. "This is the first time that the governor and the legislature are trying to turn every local jurisdiction, every police officer and every sheriff into quasi-immigration agents."

SB4 establishes steep fines for any local agency that tries to limit local cooperation with deportations and threatens to throw out of office any official who fails to eliminate his or her sanctuary policies. It also forces jails to comply with ICE's detainer requests, which are voluntary and aimed at keeping immigrants locked up after they’ve served their sentences or paid their bail.

Those opposed to SB4 say it would instill fear in their communities and damage the relationship between law enforcement agencies and immigrants. Meanwhile, supporters say it’s necessary to enforce federal immigration laws in this large border state.

The first legal challenge against SB4 came one day after Abbott signed it into law, by the mayor of El Cenizo, Raul Reyes, and Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber.

El Paso County filed its own lawsuit on May 22, while Austin and San Antonio filed the third on June 1. A few days later, the cases were consolidated as more cities and counties filed to join the case.

Next week, Judge Orlando García will hear the first arguments against SB4 in response to a preliminary injunction request filed by the plaintiffs.