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Human rights groups and El Paso County file lawsuit to stop SB 4

The Texas National Guard installed concertina wire
Aaron J. Montes / KTEP News
The Texas National Guard installed concertina wire along the border fence in El Paso, Texas ahead of the expiration of Title 42 in May.

EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - A new lawsuit filed by civil rights groups and El Paso County challenges Texas' new state law making border crossing between ports of entry a crime.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday also contests the legality of Texas' ability to enforce immigration law. The ACLU of Texas, Civil Rights Project, El Paso County and locally based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center argue immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility and Texas' Senate Bill 4 is unconstitutional.

"Congress placed all of the relevant tools and decision-making in the hands of federal officials — in keeping with the federal government's exclusive immigration powers and the sensitive foreign policy implications of these powers," the lawsuit states.

El Paso County Commissioners voted unanimously during a Monday meeting to join civil rights groups in the lawsuit. Commissioners commented on their concern about the potential for an overwhelming increase in arrests for the county's jails and the violation of individuals' rights.

County officials anticipate the new law would result in an additional 8,000 arrests per year, requiring an increase of $25 million a year on additional costs to expand jail space. And, that the county would need to spend an additional $162 million for jail housing, according to the lawsuit.

"El Paso has long been at the forefront of fighting against terrible immigration policy and I am glad to see we are continuing to do so," said David Stout, county commissioner of Precinct 2. "Not only is this going to have serious social implications, we're going to see increases in racial profiling and other terrible violations of people's rights and violations of the constitution."

Governor Abbott anticipated SB 4 would be challenged in the courts and said the state would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if needed. He had signed the bill on Monday.

He has called the law a reaction to what he describes as a failure by the Biden administration to address migration at the Southern Border.

"In his absence, Texas has the constitutional authority to secure our border through historic laws like S.B. 4," Abbott said in a statement.

The lawsuit names Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety and Bill Hicks, El Paso's District Attorney, as defendants in their official positions.

Hicks told reporters on Tuesday he expected to see a lawsuit filed but did not anticipate he would be named as a defendant.

The Republican DA was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to finish his Democratic predecessor's term after she resigned from office.

"My job is focused on laws that have passed and are actually on the books for me to enforce," Hicks said.

Hicks said his office would practice prosecutorial discretion if the law were to take effect in March and focus on violent criminal cases, and evaluate SB 4 related arrests each case at a time.

The DA said his office normally has 30,000 cases presented to staff and up to 21,000 are prosecuted during a "normal year." And, that officers would have to witness migrants crossing the border in-between a port-of-entry when making an arrest under the new law.

He also said members of mixed-status families should feel safe even if the law were in effect.

"If they're already in the United States illegally, they can't be prosecuted under that law," Hicks said. "You should not hesitate to call law enforcement if you have been a victim of a crime or if you see a crime."

U.S. Representative for El Paso Veronica Escobar approved of civil rights groups and the county's action to oppose SB 4.

"There is no doubt that the situation at our southern border requires urgent action," she said in a statement. "But make no mistake about it: Texas isn't trying to find a solution."

Escobar said it is the U.S. Congress' responsibility to create immigration laws.

She called on Congress to review the Dignity Act, a bipartisan immigration bill she authored with Republican María Salazar of Florida.

In a statement, city of El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser agreed immigration enforcement is a responsibility belonging to the federal government.

"Our local police department does not enforce immigration law," he said in his statement to KTEP News. "While SB 4 empowers law enforcement with those abilities, that is not our priority. Our number one priority is public safety and that is what the El Paso Police Department continue to focus on."

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