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Supreme Court allows Texas' controversial immigration law to go into effect

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a controversial immigration enforcement law to go into effect in Texas. The law, known as SB4, makes unauthorized entry into Texas a state crime, and it allows local police to arrest undocumented immigrants and return them to Mexico, regardless of where the immigrant is from. The law had been embroiled in court proceedings since the Republican-controlled state legislature passed it last year. Julian Aguilar of the Texas Newsroom has been following all of this and joins us now. Welcome.

JULIAN AGUILAR, BYLINE: Thank you.

CHANG: So tell us more about what today's decision means exactly.

AGUILAR: So the decision means that, at least for now, Texas can enforce the law as the court case plays out in the federal court system. The law was set to go into effect March 5, but it was blocked after the Biden administration, a handful of immigrant rights groups and El Paso County sued to stop its implementation. And that lawsuit alleged that the law is discriminatory and will unfairly target people of color. And there is also the issue of who has the authority to enforce immigration laws - is it the states or the federal government? Opponents of SB4 argue it's up to the feds.

CHANG: Wait, so can states just now start implementing immigration enforcement laws on their own?

AGUILAR: So the decision only spoke to the Texas law as before, so there's no telling what other states will try to do. I think most legislatures will wait and see what the ultimate decision is on SB4. But, you know, I have no doubt that conservative lawmakers across the country will see today's decision as a victory, even if it might be temporary.

CHANG: Can we just step back a little? Like, how did this law, SB4, first come about?

AGUILAR: Sure. So, you know, ever since President Biden took office, Governor Greg Abbott has made immigration enforcement one of his top priorities. You know, immediately after President Biden took his oath of office, he started - Governor Abbott started Operation Lone Star, which is a state-led border security effort that has sent thousands of state troopers and National Guard personnel to the border. That was in 2021. So SB4 is in addition to that. And Abbott, you know, didn't hide the fact that he saw the law as a way to challenge the legal precedent that only the federal government has jurisdiction on immigration. And, at least for now, it looks like the Supreme Court is on his side.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has struggled to address the record number of unauthorized crossings on his watch, right? So the White House is still pushing back on state-based immigration law, and Texas' SB4 is a direct way to challenge state-based enforcement.

CHANG: Well, some civil and immigrant rights organizations have been part of this lawsuit against SB4. Can you just tell us more about why they are so incredibly concerned about this law?

AGUILAR: Sure. Yeah, that's a great question. So it was an interesting debate on the Texas House floor when this was going back and forth. Senate Bill 4 has statewide applications. That means that law enforcement doesn't necessarily have to see somebody attempting to enter Texas illegally, and opponents say that that opens the door for racial profiling. So for example, they argue - are local police able to question people just to inquire about their immigration status? And it's also no secret that Texas businesses use undocumented labor, so that is one of the many concerns. And, you know, at the same time, local law enforcement leaders have been on record saying that the bill could swell their jail populations and lead to a backlog in court cases, and that all comes with additional funding from the state.

CHANG: OK. So what specifically happens next for this law in the courts?

AGUILAR: Yeah. So as we talked about earlier, this is a temporary ruling, albeit a victory for Republicans. So a federal judge ruled in late February that SB4 should be blocked because it interferes with the federal government's duties on immigration enforcement. That decision is on appeal at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which is one of the most conservative circuit courts in the nation. So now all eyes are on that circuit court, which will hear arguments on this case in early April.

CHANG: That is Julian Aguilar of the Texas Newsroom. Thank you so much, Julian.

AGUILAR: Thank you for having me.

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Julian Aguilar