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U.S. court upholds most of Texas law to punish 'sanctuary cities'

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court panel on Tuesday upheld most of a Republican-backed Texas law to punish “sanctuary cities,” allowing it to remain in effect while the case is being fought in a lower court.

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The law was the first of its kind since Republican Donald Trump became president in January 2017, promising to crack down on illegal immigration and communities that protect the immigrants.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down one provision in the law enacted by the most-populous Republican-led state to punish local officials who endorse policies running contrary to the law.

Plaintiffs including the cities of Houston, Dallas and Austin said the provision would allow the state to remove duly elected officials if they criticized the measure, a violation of constitutional free-speech protections.

The law, known as Senate Bill 4, calls for jail for police chiefs, sheriffs and possibly frontline officers who fail to cooperate over U.S. immigration. It also allows police to ask about immigration status during a lawful detention, such as traffic stops.

Lawyers for Texas said the law helped ensure conformity across the state on the application of immigration law and prevented localities from adopting positions of non-cooperation with federal authorities.

Plaintiffs contend the law could lead to racial profiling and divert resources from local police, who would be under the threat of job loss and fines if they do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

So-called sanctuary cities often do not use municipal funds or resources to enforce federal immigration laws. Sanctuary supporters say enlisting police in deportation actions undermines community trust in local law enforcement, particularly among Latinos.

Texas Republican leaders have not identified any sanctuary cities in the state. The major cities that were plaintiffs in the suit said they had been abiding by all legal U.S. detainer requests.

Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the decision, saying in a statement: “Enforcing immigration law prevents the release of individuals from custody who have been charged with serious crimes.”

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said: “We are exploring all legal options going forward.”

In August 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio found the legislation was unlikely to withstand constitutional scrutiny and blocked sections of the law just days before it was to take effect. The case then went to the 5th Circuit.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Peter Cooney