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News / Nation & World

Court action on Texas’ migrant arrest law leads to confusion at the US-Mexico border

By VALERIE GONZALEZ, Associated Press
Published: March 20, 2024, 8:38am
2 Photos
Two members of the National Guard patrol an area of land behind the federal border wall Tuesday evening, March 19, 2024, in Mission, Texas. A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed Texas to begin enforcing a law that gives police broad powers to arrest migrants suspected of crossing the border illegally while a legal battle over the measure plays out.
Two members of the National Guard patrol an area of land behind the federal border wall Tuesday evening, March 19, 2024, in Mission, Texas. A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed Texas to begin enforcing a law that gives police broad powers to arrest migrants suspected of crossing the border illegally while a legal battle over the measure plays out. (AP Photo/Valerie Gonzalez) Photo Gallery

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A dizzying volley of courtroom maneuvers over a Texas law that would allow the state to arrest and deport people who enter the U.S. illegally sowed confusion at the nation’s border with Mexico on Wednesday as sheriffs, police chiefs and migrants waited for direction.

Texas faced skeptical questioning during a hearing before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that ended without a ruling, leaving Texas’ new law on hold for now. It was part of a flurry of activity that included a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed the law to take effect for several hours Tuesday. And regardless of how the three-judge panel rules, the legal saga won’t be over.

Yolanis Campo, 42-year-old, traveled from Colombia and crossed the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. from Mexico with her 16-year-old daughter and was processed by Border Patrol agents. They released her with an ankle bracelet to pursue her immigration case. She recommended other migrants take another route because of the confusion over Texas’ law.

“It’s more complicated because (federal authorities) tell us we can move on, but this new rule, this new law complicates everything because it says we can’t move on,” said Campo, who was staying at a shelter in McAllen.

During Wednesday’s hearing, 5th Circuit Chief Judge Priscilla Richman questioned how the state law would be carried out, including how Texas would respond if federal authorities don’t cooperate with a state judge’s order to deport someone. No arrests were reported during the hours the law was in effect Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said it would not have authority to deport under the state law.

“This is uncharted because we don’t have any cases on it,” said Texas Solicitor General Aaron Nielson.

The Justice Department has argued that Texas’ law is a clear violation of federal authority and will create chaos at the border.

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Lawyers for the department faced a grilling from Judge Andrew Oldham, who was appointed by Republican President Donald Trump. The third judge on the panel, Judge Irma Ramirez, an appointee of Democratic President Joe Biden, did not ask questions during the hearing but previously voted to keep the law on hold.

Richman, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, challenged Texas’ assertion that it is exercising a “core police power,” getting Nielsen to acknowledge that deporting people has been a federal responsibility. But Nielsen denied that Texas is “trying to take over the field” on border enforcement and said the state wants to cooperate with the federal government on what is widely acknowledged to be a crisis.

Nielsen also said he did not know how the law would affect someone who entered the country illegally but came to Texas from another state.

Republican legislators wrote the law so that it applies in all of the state’s 254 counties, although Steve McCraw, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, has said he expects it will mostly be enforced near the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the law Tuesday. It instead kicked back to the lower appeals court a challenge led by the Justice Department. The 5th Circuit has been considering the state’s appeal of a scathing injunction from a lower-court judge that put the law on hold.

Under the Texas law, once migrants are in custody on illegal entry charges, they can agree to a judge’s order to leave the U.S. or face prosecution. However, Mexico has said it would refuse to take back anyone who is ordered to cross the border.

“Of course we’re against this draconian law, completely opposed,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Wednesday during his daily press briefing.

Other GOP-led states are already looking to follow Texas’ path.

In Iowa, lawmakers on Tuesday approved a bill that would also give its state law enforcement the power to arrest people who are in the U.S. illegally and have previously been denied entry into the country. If Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signs it, it would take effect in July.

The confusion in Texas resembles other immigration battles during the Trump and Biden administrations, fueled by congressional inaction. In 2020, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a Trump policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration court but said its order applied only in California and Arizona and not in New Mexico or Texas because those border states were outside its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court later said the policy should remain in effect across the border.

Arrests for illegal crossings fell by half in January from a record-high of 250,000 in December, with sharp declines in Texas. Tucson, Arizona, has been the busiest corridor in recent months, followed by San Diego in January, but reasons for sudden shifts are often complicated and are dictated by smuggling organizations.

When Biden visited the Rio Grande Valley for his second trip to the border as president last month, administration officials credited Mexico for heightened enforcement on that part of the border for the drop in arrests. They said conditions were more challenging for Mexican law enforcement in Sonora, the state that lies south of Arizona.

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