AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The White House and Mexico’s president on Tuesday came out strongly against a new Texas law that would allow police to arrest migrants who illegally cross into the U.S. and empower local judges to order them to leave the country.
Also Tuesday, civil rights groups and Texas’ largest border county filed a lawsuit, calling the measure that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had signed into law less than 24 hours earlier an unconstitutional reach over the U.S. government’s authority on immigration.
The Texas law that takes effect in March could be a test of how aggressively a state can limit immigration amid a surge in illegal crossings in remote areas that has escalated pressure on Congress to reach a deal on asylum. Abbott said Tuesday that Texas is going to such dramatic lengths because of frustration over the Biden administration’s immigration policies.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre criticized the state’s approach as extreme and dehumanizing to immigrants. She would not say whether the Justice Department would challenge the law.
“This is not who we are as a country,” she said.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Austin, was brought by El Paso County along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project. It was filed against the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, whose troopers could arrest migrants, and the El Paso County district attorney, whose office would potentially prosecute cases in that border community.
El Paso County District Attorney Bill Hicks said he woke up Tuesday morning having no idea he would be sued by his own county. He told reporters that the lawsuit could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, a scenario that some Texas Republicans welcome even as they defend the law as constitutional.
A DPS spokesperson declined to comment in an email Tuesday, citing the pending litigation.
Abbott signed the law Monday in front of a section of border fence in Brownville. He was flanked by two signs in English and Spanish: “Warning! It is illegal to cross here. Punishable by removal or imprisonment.”
Republican state Rep. David Spiller, who carried the law in the Texas House, said in an interview Tuesday that the vast majority of arrests under the law would occur within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the border, though it could be enforced statewide. He said there needs to be evidence of someone crossing illegally, whether it be an officer who witnesses it firsthand or footage from border cameras.
“I believe that Texas and other states have the absolute right to enforce their borders,” Spiller said.
Illegal crossings have topped 10,000 on some days this month, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol acting commissioner Troy Miller, who has called the number of daily arrivals “unprecedented.”
The measure allows any Texas law enforcement officer to arrest people who are suspected of entering the country illegally. Once in custody, they could either agree to a Texas judge’s order to leave the U.S. or be prosecuted on misdemeanor charges of illegal entry. Migrants who don’t leave could face arrest again under more serious felony charges.
Opponents have called it the most dramatic attempt by a state to police immigration since a 2010 Arizona law — denounced by critics as the “Show Me Your Papers” bill — that was largely struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawsuit cites the 2012 Supreme Court decision on the Arizona law, which stated the federal government has exclusive power over immigration.
“The bill overrides bedrock constitutional principles and flouts federal immigration law while harming Texans, in particular Brown and Black communities,” Adriana Piñon, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a statement.
Earlier Tuesday, ACLU affiliates in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, and San Diego and Imperial Counties in California issued a travel advisory warning of a possible threat to travelers’ civil and constitutional rights violations when passing through Texas.
Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he worried the law could lead to racial profiling and family separation. He accused Abbott of looking to score political points with people’s lives.
Other steps Texas has taken as part of Abbott’s border security efforts have included busing more than 65,000 migrants to cities across America since August 2022 and installing razor wire along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Austin and Zeke Miller in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.