Opponents of new immigration law battle Texas over court locations

The name marker outside the Federal District Court in Austin, presided over by Judge Sam Sparks.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thursday morning, lawyers for the state of Texas faced off in an Austin federal court against opponents of the new immigration enforcement law, Senate Bill 4, that was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott last month.

It was the second hearing this week in federal court but at an entirely different location. The state is seeking a declaratory judgment granting the “anti-sanctuary cities” law status under the U.S. Constitution. Just a few miles south in San Antonio, a federal judge there is deciding whether or not to grant a preliminary injunction to keep the law at bay.

Whichever court takes up the case from here will give one side a slight advantage over the other. If San Antonio’s U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia takes up the case, lawyers will argue whether or not the new law does harm to people, violating their constitutional rights. If Austin’s U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks takes up the case, lawyers will argue whether a long list of sanctuary cities are breaking a law on the books. While small, the differences could lead to a different result in the case.

“The most important thing is that we’re moving out of the political and rhetorical forum we were in in the legislature, into a place where facts and law are going to control,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler, standing alongside Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. They both prefer the cause goes to San Antonio.

“I think it’s very important for us to get a clear message from the federal court system and to have two different federal judges, one in Austin and one in San Antonio, hearing the same issues, would not clarify the circumstance,” said Eckhardt.

State lawyers argued that since the the legislature, the attorney general, Gov. Abbott, the Travis County sheriff and Austin city officials all are in Austin, the case should be consolidated in Austin. They didn’t want to talk to cameras after the hearing but the AG’s office referred me to their statement on Monday.

SB 4 “displaces policies that never permit officials to ask about immigration status, thus allowing, but not requiring, officials to voluntarily ask about immigration status in proper circumstances,” read Marc Rylander after the Monday hearing in San Antonio.

The state’s opponents say this is simply a race to the courthouse. “People that enact a law, don’t get to come in and say ‘courts will you bless my law please? Tell me it’s OK,'” said Renea Hicks, a lawyer opposing SB 4, Thursday.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sparks sharply criticized both sides when they began to veer off into the political rights and wrongs of SB4.

“This is just mishmash,” Sparks said, wanting to keep the arguments more logistical such as why he would have jurisdiction and whether or not he should rule before the law takes effect on Sept. 1.

When Nina Perales, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said she didn’t want to get into the politics of the issue. Judge Sparks said, “oh, spare me,” sarcastically.

He did not give any timeline on when he would give his decision. Neither has the judge in San Antonio, Orlando Garcia.

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