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Immigration 101: What is SB 4 (2017)?

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Originally published August 8, 2017

Last updated: December 18, 2023

Also listen to our podcast episode on SB 4

UPDATE: On December 18, 2023, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law

Most of the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant bill — Texas’ Senate Bill 4 (SB 4) — is cleared for implementation after a federal appeals court this month lifted an injunction preventing the law from being enacted while legal challenges proceed.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit almost completely reversed a federal judge’s temporary block of SB 4 in August 2017.

SB 4 has been described as a “show me your papers” law that blocks safe 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 wants to legalize racial profiling, discriminate against people of color, create a mass deportation pipeline, and make communities less safe.

What does SB 4, Texas’ “show me your papers” law, do?

  • It allows police including college campus police to question the immigration status of anyone they detain or arrest. This includes drivers and passengers who have been pulled over for traffic stops such as speeding or having a broken tail light. Even victims and witnesses who talk to police when they haven’t committed a crime are targets.
  • It requires police chiefs and sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration officials by honoring ICE detainer requests for deportation (or face $25,000 fines per day, jail time, or removal from office). This means that local jails must hold undocumented immigrants who have been detained until ICE can pick them up, if ICE has requested it.
  • SB 4 promises to use taxpayer money to defend those who are sued for enacting the law.
  • On hold is one clause that the appeals panel said would the First Amendment: a threat to punish local officials for “adopting, enforcing or endorsing” policies that stand against SB 4. This provision would have made elected and appointed officials subject to a fine, jail time, and possible removal from office.
  • SB 4 does not apply to school districts (including school police), religious-affiliated police, open-enrollment charter schools, hospital districts, community centers, and mental health authorities. However, local police called to schools can inquire about a person’s immigration status.
  • In Houston, a student was placed in a federal immigration detention center after being arrested by police at his school campus. Students decried the violation of trust by Houston Independent School District; the action also went against ICE’s policy of avoiding enforcement action in “sensitive locations” like schools, health centers, places of worship, and public demonstrations. San Antonio Independent School District has released a handbook detailing what students and families should expect during SB 4’s implementation.
  • School police or contracted officers cannot ask about a parent or student’s immigration status, except as permitted by federal law. A student’s education records are also confidential and cannot be shared with police, unless required by law.

Why should we strongly oppose SB 4?

SB 4 will make communities of color across Texas less safe, and negatively impact the public safety of all Texans. In Texas, communities of color and immigrants make up a majority of the population: 39 percent of the population is Latino, almost 12 percent is African-Americans and 5 percent is Asian. Texas is one of five “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, it causes mistrust and fear between police and minority communities by driving down cooperation and willingness to report crimes, say the Texas Major Cities Chiefs and the Texas Police Chiefs Association, who have uniformly spoken out against SB 4.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has reported that Latinos in his city have reported 13 percent fewer violent crimes, 43 percent fewer rapes and sexual assaults, 12 percent fewer aggravated assaults, and 12 percent 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 increased. In July 2017, 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 José Ontiveros.

Gov. Greg Abbott has tried to claim that SB 4 is only targeted towards criminals and 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 and passengers stopped for minor traffic infractions, victims who have called the police to report crimes, and people who have been witnesses to crimes. Last year, an undocumented woman was arrested after she went to El Paso County Courthouse to seek a protective order against her boyfriend, which stoked fear in three additional victims. In May, an undocumented man who was riding a bike when an SUV hit him was placed in deportation proceedings after police inquired about his immigration status before rendering medical aid.

A passenger with no criminal history was deported after a Texas State Trooper pulled the vehicle’s driver over for a broken tail light, then held them both for pick-up by ICE. Last year, Texas Department of Public Safety director Steve McCraw changed a policy to require Texas troopers to call Border Patrol or ICE if they suspected someone of being undocumented, even though being undocumented is a civil violation and not a crime. In Texas, Dreamers who lose DACA status may lose their drivers’ licenses, leaving them at risk for deportation.

What’s the legal status of SB 4?

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

A list of significant legal activity dates, along with links to legal documents, can be found on the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s (MALDEF) website  here.

Shortly after SB 4 was signed into law in May 2017, just about every major city and a number of counties in Texas sued the state in an attempt to stop the law. Plaintiffs included:

  • The cities of Austin, Dallas, El Cenizo, El Paso, Houston, Laredo, and San Antonio
  • El Paso County, Maverick County, and Travis County
  • El Cenizo Mayor Raul Reyes and Maverick County elected officials
  • MALDEF, Texas Organizing Project Education Fund (TOPEF), and Texas League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Texas Association of Chicanos in Higher Education (TACHE), Workers Defense Fund, and La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE)

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

In August 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia of the San Antonio U.S. District Court handed down an injunction temporarily blocking most of the law from taking place. In March 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and lifted the injunction. The majority of SB 4 can be implemented while the court case on the merits winds through the court system.

Challengers, including the ACLU and city officials, are currently considering whether to appeal the injunction ruling, most likely requesting a review by the full Fifth Circuit appeals court.

The ACLU and the Texas Civil Rights Project will be monitoring how Texas carries out SB 4 and urged the community to know their rights. The ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project deputy director Lee Gelernt reiterated that immigration arrests were the exclusive responsibility of the federal government, warning the ACLU could file challenges if ICE demanded local officials take such actions or found evidence of racial discrimination.

The ACLU will also monitor whether the Texas Attorney General’s office provides guidance to officials uncertain about the legality of an ICE request, as stipulated by the federal judge.

Related items

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

Redistricting — In September 2017, the Supreme Court found that Texas districts violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Whether Texas’ current district maps are used in the 2018 elections or notcould bolster efforts to make state lawmakers pay for their votes in favor of SB 4.

Voter ID / Voting Rights — One of the toughest voter ID laws in the country was found discriminatory by a federal judge, who ruled in April 2017 the Texas law violated the Voting Rights Act. In 2014, the federal judge made a similar ruling, and likened the law to a “poll tax” meant to suppress minority voters. The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Texas to use revised voter ID rules while the appeal goes forward.

The Republican Texas lawmakers who passed the 2011 voter ID bill also drew the discriminatory Congressional district maps. Voting and civil rights groupswill continue the legal battles into 2018 over Texas’ political maps and voter ID requirements.

DACA In June 2017, state Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with the AGs from nine other states, released a letter threatening to sue Donald Trump if he did not end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program before September 5, 2017. Even though the Trump Administration ended DACA, in December 2017, Paxton filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court threatening to file suit to eliminate the DACA program if it still exists in June 2018. There are some indications that the Trump Administration, Jeff Sessions, and Ken Paxton may have colluded to end DACA.

Though unrelated to SB 4, these incredibly hateful moves against young immigrants underscores the outsized role Texas has played over the last few years in attacking immigrants.

Know your rights

Recent resources

San Antonio Express News Editorial: Fight over sanctuary cities law continues

More about SB 4