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U.S. appeals court revives Texas immigrant-harboring law

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Thursday said Texas may resume enforcement of a 2015 state law making it a felony to harbor immigrants who entered the United States illegally.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge's preliminary injunction last April that had blocked enforcement of the border security law known as House Bill 11 in part because it intruded upon federal authority to regulate immigration.

Both sides portrayed Thursday's decision as a victory.

A spokesman for Governor Greg Abbott said it would help Texas curb human smuggling, while a lawyer for landlords and social services providers opposed to the law said the decision clarified that they cannot be prosecuted under its terms.

In issuing the injunction last April, U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra in San Antonio rejected arguments by Abbott and other state officials that the law targeted only human trafficking and smuggling, not immigration generally.

He also said enforcement could cause "irreparable harm" to the four plaintiffs, which included two landlords, a Brownsville homeless shelter, and the head of a group providing shelter and legal services to immigrants in central and south Texas.

Writing for a three-judge appeals court panel, however, Circuit Judge Jerry Smith said the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not demonstrate a "credible threat" of prosecution.

"There is no reasonable interpretation by which merely renting housing or providing social services to an illegal alien constitutes 'harboring ... that person from detection,'" Smith wrote.

Abbott's press secretary John Wittman said in an email the Republican governor "was proud to sign HB 11 into law to crack down on human smuggling and increase penalties for perpetrators of these horrific crimes. He applauds today's decision."

Ken Paxton, the state's Republican attorney General, said the decision would let Texas "fight the smuggling of humans and illegal contraband by transnational gangs and perpetrators of organized crime, not just on the border, but throughout Texas."

The plaintiffs' lawyer Nina Perales, vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, had argued that Texas legislators "intended to criminalize" her clients' activity, but said the appeals court's narrower definition of harboring offered protection.

"Texas wanted maximum latitude to arrest and prosecute people who had dealings with undocumented immigrants," Perales said in an interview. "The 5th Circuit reined that in by declaring that ordinary landlords and humanitarian workers are outside the scope of the statute."

The case is Cruz et al v Abbott et al, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-50519

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)

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