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Immigration 101: What is SB 4, Texas’ Immigration Law?


In May, Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed the nation’s newest, and harshest, anti-immigrant bill — Texas’ SB 4 — into law.

It’s been described as a bill that curtails sanctuary cities, but it’s a lot more than that. SB 4 is comparable to Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56, two famously anti-immigrant and discriminatory laws that were passed, enacted, challenged by civil rights groups and the Obama Department of Justice (DOJ), and for the most part struck down by federal courts. Like those other bills, SB 4 would legalize racial profiling, discriminate against people of color, create a mass deportation pipeline, and make communities less safe.

What does SB 4, Texas’ immigration law, do?

  • It allows police officers to ask anyone who’s detained about their immigration status. This includes people who have been pulled over for traffic infractions such as speeding or having a broken taillight, or those who talk to police when they haven’t committed a crime (such as victims or witnesses).
  • It forces police to comply with federal ICE detainers, meaning local jails must hold certain immigrants who have been detained until ICE can come pick them up.
  • State officials and elected representatives can be removed from office for not complying with the law.
  • Police officers or sheriffs who are deemed to be uncooperative could face misdemeanor charges and a fine.
  • SB 4 promises to use taxpayer money to defend those who are sued for enacting the law.

Why should we strongly oppose SB 4?

SB 4 will make communities of color across Texas less safe, which will lead to all Texans becoming less safe. In Texas, communities of color and immigrants make up a majority of the population: 39% of the population is Latino, almost 12% is African-Americans and 5% is Asian. It’s one of four majority-minority states in the nation.

Laws like SB 4 destroy the relationship between local law enforcement and immigrant communities. When there is trust in the police, immigrants are more likely to report crimes, serve as witnesses, and otherwise cooperate with law enforcement without fear of deportation. When police become involved in deportations, immigrant trust in them, and willingness to work with them, disappears.

That’s why police chiefs from cities across Texas have uniformly spoken out against SB 4. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has reported that Hispanics in his city have reported 13% fewer violent crimes, 43% fewer rapes and sexual assaults, 12% fewer aggravated assaults, and 12% fewer robberies in the first three months of 2017 compared to the same time period from 2016. This is during a period when reports of violent crime and sexual assault from non-Hispanics have increased. In July, Fort Worth reported a string of at least a dozen robberies targeting Hispanics specifically because they “don’t call the police”. One of these robberies led to the tragic death of taco vendor Jose Ontiveros.

Gov. Greg Abbott has tried to claim that SB 4 is only targeted towards criminals and that those who haven’t done anything wrong have “nothing to be concerned about”. But that’s simply false. Police can ask anyone who’s detained for any reason for their immigration status. That includes drivers stopped for speeding infractions, people who have called the police to report crimes perpetrated against them, and people who have been witnesses to crimes. In February, an undocumented woman was arrested after she went to El Paso County Courthouse to seek a protective order against her boyfriend. In May, an undocumented man who was riding a bike when an SUV hit him was put into deportation proceedings after police took down his immigration status.

What’s the legal status of SB 4?

America’s Voice has been chronicling developments in Texas relating to SB 4 all summer, since the law was signed. You can read our weekly updates here.

SB 4 will go into effect on September 1, 2017. A number of advocacy groups, cities, and counties have sued the state in an attempt to stop the law. The plaintiffs include:

  • The cities of Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso, El Cenizo, Laredo
  • Travis County, El Paso County, Maverick County
  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Texas Organizing Project Education Fund (TOPEF), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)

In June, advocates in San Antonio asked Judge Orlando Garcia of the US District Court for the Western District of Texas to block implementation of SB 4 until the various lawsuits against the bill can be resolved. Advocates hope for a favorable ruling from Judge Garcia, who recently ruled in a separate case against ICE detainers.

Changing course from the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, the Trump Administration’s DOJ, led by Jeff Sessions, has weighed in by filing a statement of interest in favor of SB 4, claiming that the state is within its rights to adopt the anti-immigrant law. Lawyers from the Department of Justice joined representatives from the state Attorney General’s office in San Antonio to argue against an injunction of SB 4.

Texas, meanwhile, has spearheaded a preemptive lawsuit against parties opposed to SB 4. That case was also heard in June, this time in front of US District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin. The state argued that since it was the first to file a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of SB 4, the lawsuits against SB 4 should be consolidated and brought to court in Austin rather than San Antonio. Advocates opposed to SB 4 argued that Texas’ preemptive lawsuit should be dropped because the state cannot prove any injury or damage for standing because the law has not gone into effect yet.

No legislative changes could be made to SB 4 until at least 2019, as the Texas legislature only meets once every two years. 

On August  31, 2017 , U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio issued an injunction against SB 4, blocking several provisions of the law, which meant 1) Local jails were not required to comply with ICE detainers; 2) Although police can ask for the immigration status of a detained individual, they won’t be pushed to. The individual does not have to answer, and the police officer cannot arrest the individual simply for being undocumented; and 3) Provisions that would have punished law enforcement and elected officials for not complying with the law didn’t go into effect.

On September 22, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on the injunction – and issued a ruling on September 25 allowing some parts of the law to proceed while continuing the injunction on other sections of the law. According to the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ruling means:

  • The endorsement prohibition of SB 4 is still blocked, so public officials are still free to express their views regarding immigration enforcement by law enforcement officers, consistent with the First Amendment.
  • The prohibition against local agencies and campus police adopting or enforcing policies that “materially limit” the enforcement of immigration law is still blocked pending the conclusion of the appeal.
  • The prohibition against patterns or practices by local agencies and campus police that “materially limit” the enforcement of immigration law is still blocked pending the conclusion of the appeal.
  • SB4’s provisions mandating cities and counties “honor and fulfill” immigration detainer requests from the federal government has gone into effect pending the conclusion of the appeal. Importantly, the panel noted that SB4 “does not require detention pursuant to every ICE detainer request; rather, the ‘comply with, honor, and fulfill’ provision mandates that local agencies cooperate according to existing ICE detainer practice and law.”

A hearing on the state’s challenge of the Federal Court’s ruling on SB4 will take place before the Fifth Circuit on November 6, 2017.

Related items

The below points are not, strictly speaking, related to SB 4, but are also major events happening in Texas:

Redistricting — In July, civil rights groups took Texas to court during a redistricting trial that could determine whether Texas voting districts (drawn by the Republican-led state legislature) were intentionally discriminatory against voters of color. The case could lead to a radical redrawing of Texas state and House districts before the 2018 elections, which could bolster or complicate efforts to make state lawmakers pay for their votes in favor of SB 4.

DACA — In June, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with the AGs from nine other states, released a letter threatening to sue Donald Trump if he does not end the deferred action for Dreamers (DACA) program before September 5. Though unrelated to SB 4, this incredibly hateful move against young immigrants underscores the outsized role Texas has played over the last few years in attacking immigrants.


Know your rights! Learn to protect your information and protect yourself from deportation here.

More about SB 4