SAN ANTONIO — Immigrant rights attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Monday challenging part of a Texas border security bill they say could allow state authorities to target shelters and landlords for harboring immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is asking a judge to find unconstitutional part of the far-reaching security bill the state passed in 2015.
The group suing includes two landlords who say they could be hurt by the law because they don't ask the immigration status of their tenants. Also suing is Jonathan Ryan, director of a San Antonio-based immigration legal services center that also runs a shelter for migrants whose staff and volunteers, he says, could be subject to prosecution.
Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who authored the bill in question, called the lawsuit "frivolous" and said the legislation was never intended to target shelters, aid workers or landlords and could not be used to do so.
But Nina Perales, the lead lawyer with MALDEF, said the law is intended to target people who do business with immigrants, such as landlords, or people carrying out humanitarian work in shelters.
"There can be no explanation for this harboring statute than to intimidate people," she said. "There is no public safety function."
Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill, known as HB 11, into law by last year as part of an $800 million border security effort undertaken by the Legislature. Under one provision of HB 11, people who profit from, encourage or induce a person to enter or stay in the country illegally "by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection" can be charged with various felony degrees. The charges depend on the age of the immigrant and whether he or she becomes victim of sexual assault or other crimes.
The bill also creates the new crime of "continuous harboring" of immigrants for 10 days or more.
David Cruz, a San Antonio landlord who is one of the plaintiffs, called the law "pretty broad and vague."
The law "could affect me if I have to be determining the residency status of my tenants," he said. "I feel it's not my role."
Bonnen called the suit "a political stunt," saying the bill had been "carefully crafted to go after the drug cartel leaders who are smuggling individuals into our state," and forcing them into prostitution, or making them victims of "violence, forced labor, sexual assault and other heinous crimes."
Abbott's spokesman John Wittman said the law is intended to fight human smuggling and that the governor was proud to have signed it.
The harboring provision was called into question at last year's hearings as potentially vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, because the federal government has authority over immigration. Moreover, Perales said, existing federal and state laws already prohibit most of the activities described in HB 11.
In recent years, federal courts have struck down immigrant harboring laws in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina as pre-empted by federal law.
In Texas, the suburban Dallas community of Farmers Branch made national headlines after passing an ordinance a decade ago that would have fined or revoked renter's licenses for landlords who lease property to immigrants in the country illegally.
The 5th U.S. Court of Appeals later ruled the ordinance unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 declined to hear the city's appeal. The high court has held since 2012 that immigration issues are largely a matter for federal agencies, not local governments, to regulate.
Ryan, the director of RAICES in San Antonio, said he was confident that the harboring provisions of HB 11 will be struck down, "and in doing so send a deterring message to those who would seek to pass unjust unconstitutional laws." As the direct of a nonprofit professional legal services group, he said, "I must have an assurance that my operations are legal."