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Immigration 101: What is SB 4 (2024)?

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Disambiguation: There are multiple pieces of legislation called SB 4 in Texas. SB 4 (2017) was about sanctuary cities, and you can read our explainer here.

There was a Senate Bill 4 (the “Texas Travel Ban law”) from the legislature’s third special session, which took effect on February 6, 2024. Texas’ Travel Ban law criminalizes concealed transportation of undocumented people in the state. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has already weaponized this law to attack organizations like Annunciation House, which provides critical support to people on the move. 

In the post below, we will discuss Senate Bill 4 from the fourth special session, also known as Texas’ latest deportation and racial profiling law. This SB 4 is not in effect and is currently being fought against in the courts by the Biden Administration and civil rights organizations.

What is SB 4? What Does It Do? 

Senate Bill 4 from the fourth special session was a Texas state statute enacted by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2023.

SB 4 criminalizes anyone who crosses into Texas from another country outside a port of entry. Border crossers are charged with a misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony afterward. While this was already a federal offense, SB 4 makes crossing into a state crime, allowing Texas law enforcement officers to take on roles traditionally belonging to the US Border Patrol.

Why is it Dangerous?

SB 4 is a “show me your papers” law. If enforced, it would give police the right to question, arrest, and charge anyone suspected of crossing the border without documentation. Everyone in the state — visitors, legal immigrants, permanent residents, US citizens — would be required to carry their papers, passport, or proof of citizenship at all times.

Of course, not everyone would be equally suspect to law enforcement officials. SB 4 would make it easy to racially profile Texans just for being Latino — even if they are US citizens who have lived in Texas going back generations. Pulled over and detained just for driving in a car too close to the border? It’s happened many times before. Latinos could become targets for increased traffic stops, detention, and harassment just because of the color of their skin or the accent in which they speak.

SB 4 may also lead to racial profiling for other communities of color. For example, Texas is home to almost 1 million people working in the tech sector, many of whom are immigrants who could land in detention if they are caught without papers. In 2011, when Alabama implemented HB 56 (its own show-me-your-papers law) the dragnet ended up catching multiple car manufacturing executives visiting from overseas, embarrassing the governor and state legislature. 

SB 4 would also make it more difficult for migrants — including families and children fleeing terrible conditions in their home countries — to seek asylum. In fact, even though coming to the border to seek asylum is a human right protected by international and US law, SB 4 would criminalize such asylum seekers all the same. That’s why law enforcement officials have expressed concern over how to implement the law. “How are we going to do this? It’s impossible…what if we deport a US citizen?” asked Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber. “My deputies are not trained for immigration work.”

Meanwhile, SB 4 does nothing to address the root causes of migration driving people to the US border — which experts say is the only long-term solution. 

Why Did Texas Pass SB 4? 

In response to an increase in the number of migrants coming to the border, Abbott and other Texas officials have been taking increasingly drastic steps that have created dangers for migrants and run afoul of US immigration law and foreign policy.

In 2022, Texas began bussing tens of thousands of migrants to cities and states far from the border, using millions in taxpayer dollars to engineer a political stunt. Texas did not coordinate with the cities and states receiving migrants, sometimes leaving migrants stranded in unfamiliar places and local agencies scrambling to help.

In 2023, Texas placed a 1,000-foot barrier made out of razor-sharp buoys in the middle of the Rio Grande in order to deter crossings. The buoys likely caused migrant deaths and the Biden Administration sued Texas, saying that the buoys violate a federal law involving navigable rivers. The buoys have been allowed to stay in place while the court case proceeds. 

Texas also placed concertina wire on the banks of the Rio Grande, which Border Patrol agents were forced to cut through in order to assist or detain migrants found crossing the river. The state then filed a lawsuit claiming that the federal agents were destroying state property.

Finally, earlier this year, Texas forced a standoff with Border Patrol agents at a city park in Eagle Pass, TX. Agents had been using the park — which is located just feet away from the border — to process crossing migrants. Gov. Abbott ordered the state National Guard to block the Border Patrol from accessing the park. This was another deliberate obstruction of federal immigration policy which caused migrant deaths when Border Patrol agents were unable to respond to reports that children were in distress in the Rio Grande. Three bodies were recovered the next day. 

SB 4 Litigation

In January 2024, the Biden Administration – as well as advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, and the Texas Civil Rights Project – sued Texas over SB 4. United States v. Texas (2024) was heard in the Western District of Texas.

In late February, Judge David Alan Ezra issued a preliminary injunction against SB 4, rejecting Texas’ justifications for enacting the law. Texas had claimed that migrants crossing the border constituted an “invasion” that required extraordinary measures. Judge Ezra, in his ruling, pointed out that this is just literally false: “Surges in immigration do not constitute an ‘invasion,’ the judge wrote. “I haven’t seen, and the state of Texas can’t point me to any type of military invasion in Texas. I don’t see evidence that Texas is at war.” 

Shortly after, however — in some incredibly chaotic legal moves — the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Ezra’s ruling. The Biden Administration appealed to the Supreme Court, which blocked the law from going into effect until March 18, 2024.

On March 19, this hold expired. But just hours later, the Fifth Circuit reversed its own earlier decision and once again put SB 4 on hold. The Fifth Circuit is expected to hear the appeals case in early April.

SB 4 and the Supreme Court 

Though SB 4 is currently still blocked, the fact that the Supreme Court was willing to allow the law to go through was troubling to many. In 2012, the Supreme Court heard Arizona v. United States, the court case against Arizona’s SB 1070 (yet another show-me-your-papers law). The Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that such laws were unconstitutional and that states could not implement their own immigration laws. So it’s concerning that the Court, just twelve years later, seems unwilling to head off SB 4.

As a Vox article asked, “How does an unambiguously unconstitutional law wind up before the Supreme Court?” (Answer: politics, and a changing Court.)

Our Executive Director, Vanessa Cárdenas, wrote:

Today’s ruling is a disturbing, if unsurprising, lens at the current U.S. Supreme Court. By allowing SB4 to go into effect, the Court gives legitimacy to the right-wing anti-immigrant judicial pipeline and a tacit endorsement to the dangerous ‘invasion’ clause Texas relied on. We fear the Supreme Court is opening the door to a continued weakening of the federal government’s supremacy on immigration and the frightening prospect of a dangerous and chaotic era of state anti-immigrant policymaking, driven by politics and not the Constitution. If we have fifty state immigration laws, can we really still call ourselves the “United” States?” 

Know Your Rights

The Fifth Circuit may end up allowing SB 4 to go into effect, and/or the Supreme Court may rule on the law again in the future. If SB 4 is implemented, it’s important to know your rights when visiting or residing in Texas:

  • 4th Amendment: You do not have to consent to an unlawful search of your property, including your vehicle.
  • 5th Amendment: You have a right to remain silent and not answer any questions from a law enforcement officer relating to your immigration status or how you entered the state of Texas.
  • 6th Amendment: You have a right to an attorney for criminal matters but not immigration matters.
  • What do you need to answer? 
    • If you’ve been arrested: Name, address, and date of birth
    • If you have NOT been arrested: You do not need to provide any information
    • If you are not driving (if you are a passenger): You do not need to show ID or papers

Learn more