US judge deals blow to Texas’ ‘sanctuary city’ law
Judge giving a verdict (Shutterstock)

A U.S. district judge in Austin has rejected an effort by Texas to have a law that would punish so-called sanctuary cities be declared constitutional ahead of the measure taking effect next month.

The Republican-backed law is the first of its kind since Republican Donald Trump became president in January, promising to crack down on illegal immigration. Texas is the U.S. state with the longest border with Mexico.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, appointed under Republican President George H.W. Bush, dismissed the case without prejudice late on Wednesday. The brief ruling did not give a reason.

Senate Bill 4 calls for jail time for police chiefs, sheriffs and possibly frontline officers who fail to cooperate with U.S. immigration officials. The measure also allows police to ask about immigration status during a lawful detention.

After the law was approved in May, Texas sued major urban areas, including Austin, El Paso and Houston, as well as civil rights groups, saying they backed policies of non-cooperation with federal immigration officials.

At a hearing in June, Sparks asked why a court should declare the law constitutional before it took effect on Sept. 1. He also questioned why he should hear the case when most of the parties were part of a separate lawsuit over the same law being heard in a federal court in San Antonio.

The defendants contended that they have been abiding by federal law and the suit should be dismissed because Texas had no evidence to show that it had been harmed by a law that had not taken effect.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said on Wednesday he was disappointed with the ruling on what he called an "undoubtedly constitutional law."

In the federal case being heard in San Antonio, a small border town and some of the largest Texas cities told a judge in June that SB 4 could lead to an immigration police state and establish illegal racial profiling. They asked the court to halt it, saying it was unconstitutional.

The bill's Republican sponsor has said there are no local jurisdictions in Texas he considers a "sanctuary city," a place that shields immigrants in the country illegally, adding that the law would prevent them from adopting such policies.

Chicago on Monday sued to prevent the Trump administration from enforcing new policies that would withhold money from sanctuary cities.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)