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Appeals court extends hold on Texas deportation law

5th Circuit will hear oral arguments next week on clash over federal and state immigration enforcement

Migrants from Peru and Venezuela walk down a trail on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande river Tuesday in El Paso, Texas.
Migrants from Peru and Venezuela walk down a trail on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande river Tuesday in El Paso, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court late Tuesday night kept on hold a Texas law that would allow state officials to effectively deport immigrants.

In a 2-1 decision, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit agreed to halt implementation of the law while Texas appeals a decision from a trial judge who last month found that the law likely violated the Constitution.

The 5th Circuit will now hear oral arguments April 3 about whether the trial judge correctly ruled on the state law, known as SB 4, which was originally set to go into effect earlier this month.

The Biden administration and civil rights groups have challenged the law, which makes it a state crime to cross from Mexico to Texas unlawfully. State courts could order the removal of immigrants even if they have pending asylum claims, the Biden administration said in court papers.

In Tuesday’s decision, Chief Judge Priscilla Richman wrote that the law intrudes on the federal government’s full control over the immigration system. Immigrants could lose access to attorneys, asylum claims and other federal rights if the state can proceed with the law.

“We bear in mind the United States has asserted that the laws at issue may disrupt or interfere with its core constitutional authority, including authority with regard to foreign policy and relations with other countries, as well as its authority over immigration,” Richman wrote.

Richman also noted separately that part of Texas’ frustration with the immigration system may stem from a lack of congressional funding. She pointed to a recent Supreme Court decision that upheld the Biden administration’s decision to target its limited resources toward the worst immigration cases.

“Texas, nobly and admirably some would say, seeks to fill at least partially the gaping void. But it is unlikely that Texas can step into the shoes of the national sovereign under our Constitution and laws,” Richman wrote.

Judge Andrew Oldham, a Trump appointee who dissented from a previous decision to keep the law on hold, wrote that the majority decision was effectively an expansion of federal power over immigration.

“The people of Texas are entitled to the benefit of state law right up to the point where any particular application of it offends the Supremacy Clause. And Texas state officials should be trusted at least to try sorting those constitutional applications from any potentially unconstitutional ones,” Oldham wrote.

Tuesday’s decision is the latest twist in a circuitous legal journey for the case. After a trial judge declared the law likely unconstitutional last month, Texas appealed, asking the 5th Circuit to let the law go into effect.

The 5th Circuit originally issued an administrative stay of the lower court ruling, which the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court to lift. The Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision ultimately did not intervene, and the law went into effect for a few hours earlier this month.

Later that night, the 5th Circuit issued a 2-1 decision to put the law on hold and set up oral arguments over whether to keep the law on hold pending the appeal, which resulted in Tuesday’s decision.

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