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US Supreme Court Lets Texas Border Enforcement Law Take Effect


FILE - Migrants are taken into custody by officials at the Texas-Mexico border, in Eagle Pass, Texas, Jan. 3, 2024.
FILE - Migrants are taken into custody by officials at the Texas-Mexico border, in Eagle Pass, Texas, Jan. 3, 2024.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday let a Republican-backed Texas law take effect that allows state law enforcement authorities to arrest people suspected of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, rejecting a bid to block it by President Joe Biden's administration.

The court has a 6-3 conservative majority, and its three liberal justices dissented, saying Tuesday's action turns immigration enforcement — typically the province of the federal government — on its head.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the Texas law will "sow chaos and confusion at our southern border." Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott called the court's action "clearly a positive development."

The administration had asked the justices to freeze a judicial order allowing the law to take effect while its challenge to the statute proceeds in lower courts.

The U.S. Justice Department sued in January to block the measure, originally set to take effect on March 5. The administration said the law violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law by interfering with the U.S. government's power to regulate immigration as well as running afoul of a 2012 Supreme Court precedent.

Last December, Abbott signed the law known as SB 4, which authorizes state law enforcement to arrest people suspected of entering the U.S. illegally, giving local officers powers long delegated to the federal government. Abbott said the law was needed due to Biden's failure to enforce federal laws criminalizing illegal entry or re-entry.

"Today, the court invites further chaos and crisis in immigration enforcement," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent joined by fellow liberal Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote a separate dissent.

Republicans have sharply criticized the Democratic president's handling of the record numbers of migrants caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Abbott and other Republicans favor the restrictive policies of former President Donald Trump, their party's candidate challenging Biden in the November 5 U.S. election.

State crimes

The Texas law made illegal entry or re-entry into Texas a state crime, with penalties ranging from 180 days in jail to 20 years in prison. It requires Texas magistrate judges to order migrants to return to Mexico, with up to 20-year sentences for those who refuse to comply.

Conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote an opinion concurring in Tuesday's decision, explaining the justices were being asked to upend a lower appeals court's "administrative stay" of a judicial decision blocking the law — a measure that is meant to be short-lived.

Barrett, who was joined by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said Biden's administration could file another application to the Supreme Court if the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals does not issue a ruling "soon."

Kagan wrote that the 5th Circuit's use of an administrative stay rather than another mechanism "should not spell the difference between respecting and revoking long-settled immigration law."

The 5th Circuit acted fast on Tuesday after the Supreme Court ruling, scheduling oral arguments for Wednesday on the motion to stay the case pending appeal.

On February 29, Texas-based U.S. District David Ezra sided with the administration and agreed to preliminarily block Texas officials from enforcing the law, saying it "threatens the fundamental notion that the United States must regulate immigration with one voice."

But the 5th Circuit paused Ezra's ruling in an order that would have let the law take effect on March 10, prompting the administration to file an emergency request to the Supreme Court. Justice Samuel Alito, acting for the Supreme Court, on March 4 had halted the 5th Circuit ruling — and thus the law — from taking effect, giving the justices more time to consider the matter.

Texas has tried to deter people who cross illegally under its Operation Lone Star using measures including deploying National Guard troops to the border, blocking migrants with concertina wire and installing a floating barrier over a stretch of the Rio Grande.

Jean-Pierre called the Texas law "just another example of Republican officials politicizing the border while blocking real solutions."

Mexico's foreign ministry issued a statement calling the Texas law "anti migrant" and said it would foment "family separation, discrimination and racial profiling." The statement also said "Mexico will not accept, under any circumstances, repatriations by the state of Texas."

Republicans in February scuttled a bipartisan U.S. Senate deal that would have bolstered border security and tightened immigration laws after Trump pushed members of his party to reject it.

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