To Be or Not to S.B.4: Back and Forth on Texas’s Senate Bill 4

By: Monica Diaz, 2L

A contentious new Texas law,  known as Senate Bill 4 or S.B. 4, that aims to grant state and local law enforcement the authority to detain migrants entering the state from Mexico without permission is currently facing an unclear fate. In late February, a federal district judge ordered a temporary injunction after finding that the statute violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Hours after the Supreme Court ruled on the procedural legality of Senate Bill 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a new order to block the Texas law. 

Senate Bill 4 authorizes enforcement and protects Texas police officers who arrest people crossing the U.S. border from Mexico illegally. Under Senate Bill 4, any migrant observed by law enforcement crossing the Rio Grande could face arrest and misdemeanor charges in state court. Any subsequent arrest would be categorized as a felony. Upon being arrested, migrants could be directed through court proceedings to return to Mexico or face prosecution if they decline. 

The statute was intended to go into effect on March 5, 2024, but has faced legal challenges from the U.S. Department of Justice and immigration advocates. The Department of Justice argued that the federal government has the exclusive power to enforce immigration law, especially where there are cross-border and diplomatic issues at stake. Texas has argued that the law is needed to stop the record number of migrants crossing its border illegally. 

The Government of Mexico, in a press release, expressed opposition to any law permitting state or local authorities to send migrants back across the border to Mexico as the majority of migrants are non-Mexican. Roberto Velasco Alvarez, a North American diplomat for Mexico, already stated Mexico would not accept deportations from the state of Texas “under any circumstances.” 

On March 19, 2024, the Supreme Court ruled to leave in place the administrative stay on the preliminary injunction blocking Texas Senate Bill 4. The case brought to the Supreme Court was a combination of two lawsuits: U.S. v Texas, et al. and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, et al. v. Steven McGraw, Director, Texas Department of Public Safety, et al. The Supreme Court’s ruling meant S.B. 4 legally went into effect for a short period. Notably, the Supreme Court’s concurring opinion emphasized that the case merits were not at issue. The Supreme Court addressed a temporary administrative stay rather than a stay pending appeal. The concurring opinion, written by Justice Barrett and joined by Justice Kavanaugh, stated that the issue “[P]uts this case in a very unusual procedural posture” because “[a]dministrative stays do not typically reflect the court’s consideration of the merits of the stay application.” 

            Following the Supreme Court’s ruling on the procedural issue, the merits of the case will be heard on April 3, 2024, in the Fifth Circuit. The Supreme Court may still have the opportunity to rule on the merits of this case, especially as several other states have similar bills pending. 

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