Politics

Lina Hidalgo, other Texas county judges ask U.S. president to block state’s new immigration law

Senate Bill 4, recently passed by the Texas Legislature, allows local and state authorities to arrest people suspected of entering Texas illegally from a foreign country and also empowers county and state court judges to order their deportation if they are found to be in violation. Enforcement of immigration laws is the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismisses allegations of evidence tampering during a press conference on Nov. 10, 2023.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismisses allegations of evidence tampering during a press conference on Nov. 10, 2023.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and two other Democratic county judges in Texas are asking President Joe Biden to thwart a pending immigration law that allows local and state authorities to arrest people suspected of entering Texas illegally from a foreign country. Senate Bill 4 makes that a state crime and also empowers county and state court judges to order the deportation of those found to be in violation, even though the enforcement of immigration laws is the jurisdiction of the federal government.

In a Monday letter to Biden, which Hidalgo publicized Tuesday on social media, she, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego wrote that the law, passed last week by the Republican-controlled state legislature, "is as unprecedented as Texas trying to declare its own wars." Senate Bill 4 has yet to be signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, but he wrote Nov. 15 on social media that he looked forward to doing so.

"We are writing to express our profound concern over legislation ... that makes local communities less safe, interferes with federal immigration enforcement, threatens our relationships with other nations, and does not get us any closer to sound immigration policy," the county judges wrote. "We urge you to intervene to stop this legislation from going into effect and to prevent Texas Governor Greg Abbott from violating the U.S. Constitution."

The White House did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment about the letter and the county judges' request.

Abbott has described border-related legislation such as Senate Bill 4 and Senate Bill 3 – which authorizes more than $1.5 billion in state funds to go toward building walls, fences and other barriers between Texas and Mexico – as necessary for security reasons. The Texas House sponsor of Senate Bill 4, Republican state Rep. David Spiller of Jacksboro, told the Texas Newsroom the state is inherently within its rights to protect its southern border.

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"It's a landmark bill that allows Texas to protect Texans and to send illegal immigrants back, and to prosecute and incarcerate those that refuse to leave," Spiller said.

A group of former immigration judges released a statement earlier this month, through the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, saying Senate Bill 4 is unlawful because "immigration is plainly a federal function." They also noted that people who enter the U.S. unlawfully have "rights and protections under federal law, including the right to apply for asylum."

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 upheld the federal government's jurisdiction over the enforcement of immigration laws while striking down state legislation passed in Arizona.

Texas' newly passed law also has been criticized by Mexican officials, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). The latter organization said last week it was asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene and planned to sue the state in federal court.

"LULAC sees the abuse of power by state politicians as being driven by deep fear and resentment," LULAC president Domingo Garcia said in a statement. "The flood of new racist laws in Texas, Florida and elsewhere are desperate attempts to try and stop the change that's coming. Latinos are growing in numbers, voting strength and determination to be included in the American dream. Nothing will deter us, and no one will block our fight for justice. LULAC will be registering and turning out voters next year with a voto de castigo, a punishment vote at the polls against those who play the race card in Texas politics."

The letter signed by Hidalgo and the other two county judges says undocumented immigrants in Texas work in critical industries such as construction, pay federal taxes and boost local economies.

"SB 4 will create an environment in which all those families live in fear of their loved ones being forced to leave this country," the letter states. "Immigration, as an issue, is easy to weaponize for political reasons. Throughout history, politicians have exploited fear of the ‘other' for political gain. But effective solutions will not be borne by dangerous political posturing."