Judge dismisses part of Texas' "sanctuary city" lawsuit against San Antonio

In its first enforcement action under a controversial new law, Texas sued San Antonio last year, alleging that the city had broken the law in December 2017.

The state of Texas alleges that San Antonio had a general policy against complying with federal authorities on immigration laws, a claim the city denies.

In a setback for the state in its first enforcement action under a controversial, anti-“sanctuary cities” law passed in 2017, a district judge in Travis County has dismissed several claims made by the Texas Attorney General’s Office against the city of San Antonio, which the state claimed had “materially limited” the enforcement of immigration laws.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the city in November 2018, alleging that officials there had violated the law in December 2017, when San Antonio police discovered a trailer carrying 12 individuals from Guatemala who were suspected of being undocumented. The driver was later prosecuted, but the migrants were released without the involvement of federal immigration authorities. The state also alleged that the city had a general policy against complying with federal authorities on immigration laws, a claim San Antonio denies.

But at the time of that incident, several relevant provisions of the law were barred from enforcement because of a temporary injunction from a federal court in unrelated litigation, State District Judge Tim Sulak ruled July 2. Most of the law was later reinstated.

The city has maintained that it did not break the law — but argues that even if it had, the relevant portions were enjoined at the time. Sulak agreed with the city, dismissing claims that it had “materially limited” immigration enforcement during the period when that provision of the law was blocked.

“It’s a victory,” San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said Thursday. “It’s a very positive result for the city, and I think it gives us momentum going further into the litigation.”

The San Antonio Express-News first reported the partial dismissal.

Still, the lawsuit is far from over. The city must still contend with a remaining claim, an allegation that it has a general policy against cooperating with federal authorities on immigration laws. San Antonio denies that, but the attorney general’s office indicated it will continue to vigorously pursue the lawsuit. Several million dollars in fees for the city are at stake.

Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the attorney general, said in a statement that “we respectfully disagree” with the judge’s ruling.

“The court’s ruling addressed only a portion of the State’s case, and we intend to continue to pursue all legal avenues to enforce SB 4 to its fullest extent,” said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the agency.

Segovia said Thursday that his office has been notified that the attorney general’s office plans to take the unusual step of appealing the dismissal to the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, a move that would require permission from both the trial court and appeals court. Typically, the losing side would not be able to appeal until all claims had been litigated at the trial court. Paxton’s office did not respond to specific questions about next steps.

The city, which says it has not received any complaints from federal authorities over its handling of this incident or any other, has criticized Paxton’s lawsuit as a political stunt and maintained that it cooperates fully with immigration enforcement agencies.

Senate Bill 4 has been highly controversial since 2017, when it was passed over the emotional objections of Democrats.