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Lawsuits & Litigation

Texas Reinstates Law Against Harboring Illegal Immigrants

— February 27, 2017

An appeals court in Texas reinstated a law which criminalized harboring illegal immigrants.

The law had been pending since 2015, when it was passed by the state senate. A federal judge had issued an injunction against the law after two San Antonio landlords and their counsel filed a suit. The two men, backed by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, had worried not checking the legal status of their tenants might open them to prosecution.

Thursday’s ruling removed the injunction as well as the landlords’ fears.

“There is no reasonable interpretation by which merely renting housing or providing social services to an illegal immigrant constitutes ‘harboring … that person from detection,’” U.S. Circuit Court Judge Jerry Smith wrote.

Smith’s statement boosted the confidence of the law’s proponents, who said the legislation was never intended to be used as a weapon against property owners or immigration advocates.

John Wittman, a spokesman for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, said his office pleased with the reinstatement.

“Governor Abbott was proud to sign House Bill 11 into law,” he said, “to crack down on human smuggling and increase penalties for perpetrators of these horrific crimes.”

State Rep. Bonnen introduces the anti-harboring law in 2015; image courtesy of The Statesman
State Rep. Bonnen introduces the anti-harboring law in 2015; image courtesy of The Statesman

Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed the sentiment, saying he was pleased with the ruling.

“[It] will allow the state to fight the smuggling of illegal contraband by transnational gangs and perpetrators of crime, not just on the border, but throughout Texas,” he wrote in an official release. Paxton had been early supporter of the legislation, which constituted part of a broader border security bill. Lawmakers had said their aim was to create more tools which could be employed in the crack-down against human trafficking.

David Cruz and Valentin Reyes, the two landlords who filed the lawsuit, had been concerned of what possible consequences could hit them. “Harboring” seemed too vague of a word which could be applied to landlords renting units as equally as to cartel members running tunnels and smuggling chains. The initially successful suit argued that the Texas law was “improperly circumvent[ing] federal authority over immigration policy.”

However, attorneys working for the state of Texas argued there is a big distinction between “harboring” and simply sheltering or aiding an illegal immigrant. The language of the law instead singles out persons who intentionally “conceal” illegal aliens “from detection,” with the target being smugglers rather than immigrants themselves.

NBC News reported the appeals panel had ruled that Reyes and Cruz wouldn’t have been at risk either way, as neither man was renting to illegal immigrants to begin with.

The vice president for litigation for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Nina Perales, said the ruling was good news for her clients.

“The Fifth Circuit provided us with a narrow definition of harboring that will prevent Texas law enforcement officers from arresting humanitarian workers and landlords for simply providing shelter and conducting business with undocumented immigrants,” she said.


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