By James Barragán
The Department of Justice on Friday sided with Texas in the lawsuit against its recently passed sanctuary cities ban, lending significant if unsurprising support to boosters of the law.
The department's decision to back a state in a high-profile case on a hawkish immigration issue is a reversal from its operation under President Barack Obama's administration, which often sided with civil rights groups that opposed such state laws.
"The Department of Justice fully supports Texas's effort and is participating in this lawsuit because of the strong federal interest in facilitating the state and local cooperation that is critical in enforcing our nation's immigration laws," U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a prepared statement.
"President Trump has made a commitment to keep America safe and to ensure cooperation with federal immigration laws," he said. "Texas has admirably followed his lead by mandating state-wide cooperation with federal immigration laws that require the removal of illegal aliens who have committed crimes."
The department filed a statement of interest on Friday with the federal district court in San Antonio that is handling the suit, indicating that it will be involved in the lawsuit going forward. The first hearing in the case, in which the court will consider whether to temporarily block the law, is Monday.
"It's reassuring to know that the Trump administration believes in upholding the Constitution and defending the rule of law, and I'm grateful for the DOJ's assistance in helping my office defend the lawful Senate Bill 4," Attorney General Paxton said in a written statement. "Enforcing immigration law helps prevent dangerous criminals from being released into our communities. We look forward to working with DOJ lawyers to see that Senate Bill 4 is fully honored in Texas."
Texas' law allows police officers to ask a person about their immigration status during any legal detention, including routine traffic stops. It also forces local jurisdictions to comply with requests from federal immigration authorities, known as detainers, to hold immigrants for them.
The law prevents cities, counties and universities from prohibiting their law enforcement officers from asking about immigration status. If a local law enforcement official tried to prevent his officers from doing so, he could be removed from office and thrown in jail. Jurisdictions could face fines of up to $25,000 a day for each day they violate the ban.
Opponents of the law argued that it would lead to racial profiling of Latinos and that it unconstitutionally threatened to remove local officials and, in some cases, throw them in jail.
In its filing on Friday, the Justice Department argued against the plaintiff's complaints that the sanctuary cities ban, also known as Senate Bill 4, violated the Fourth and Tenth Amendments.
"Parties may disagree with the state legislature's policy determinations in enacting SB 4, but nothing in federal immigration law precludes a state from directing law enforcement officers in the state to cooperate with the federal government, rather than merely permitting them to do so," the brief reads.
The law's opponents had held fast to previous rulings where federal courts, including the Supreme Court, had said that hawkish immigration measures could not stand because immigration enforcement was a duty reserved for the federal government, not the states.
Under a legal concept known as pre-emption, the Obama administration opposed state laws that took a more hawkish approach to immigration enforcement than the federal government, saying that duty was reserved for the feds.
But one of the Trump administration's top goals is to crack down on illegal immigration, and its Justice Department is now arguing that because the federal government is asking Texas to hold immigrants for them, the two are working together not in opposition. As such, it argued, the federal government does not take issue with Texas' law and it should be allowed to continue.
"The federal government must have the proper assistance from state and local authorities to effectively enforce immigration laws and keep our communities safe. And that's, frankly, what Texas's law does," White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters at an off-camera briefing Friday. "The Trump administration is glad to be putting its full support behind Texas's effort."
Staff writer Todd J. Gillman contributed to this report.
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