Appeals court dismisses case on immigrant harboring law

By Julián Aguilar

An immigrant rights group and the Texas Attorney General's Office both praised an appellate court’s Thursday ruling on a border security case — but for completely different reasons.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans dismissed a case brought against the state by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, that sought to stop an immigrant-harboring provision that was part of a Texas law that went into effect in September of 2015.

Under the provision, a person commits a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

MALDEF challenged the law on behalf of David Cruz and Valentin Reyes — two landlords who don’t ask for the immigration status of prospective tenants — and Jonathan Ryan, the director of an immigrant services agency. The group alleged that under the bill’s provisions, they could be accused of a crime for providing shelter space or renting homes to undocumented immigrants.

A district judge initially blocked the provision after agreeing the plaintiffs could suffer irreparable harm and placed it on hold until the case meandered through the court system.

But Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw submitted a written statement afterward in which he claimed “DPS officials would not investigate, file criminal charges, or otherwise engage in enforcement activity pursuant to the present version of [the section] of the Texas Penal Code against individuals engaged in such conduct.”

In their opinion, the justices said there was no “reasonable interpretation” that renting a house or providing services equals “harboring” and dismissed the case.

In an emailed statement, Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation, said the court’s fine-tuning the definition of “harboring” was a “positive result.”

“The 5th Circuit expressed a very narrow definition of harboring that will prevent Texas law enforcement officers from arresting shelter workers and landlords under the state harboring statute,” she said. “The court's very narrow definition of harboring will prevent all but the most limited enforcement of the statute.”


Meanwhile, Paxton declared victory and slammed the plaintiffs as a “group of open-border advocates.”

“Today’s ruling by the 5th Circuit will allow the state to fight the smuggling of humans and illegal contraband by transnational gangs and perpetrators of organized crime, not just on the border but throughout Texas,” he said.

The ruling comes as the state’s budget writers are considering how much to spend on Texas’ efforts to secure the border after allotting a record $800 million for the effort in 2015. Lawmakers have suggested they might dial back the amount during the current legislative session if they see the Trump administration is making good on its promise to secure the borders and deport undocumented immigrants.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

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