Texas Migrant Law Is America's Latest Test Against Its States

The clash between Texas and the federal government over whether the state can enforce its own immigration policy reflects a broader, recurring feature of American politics: A number of hot-button issues have become battles by proxy to know who decides.

Under the Trump administration, Democratic-led states like California and blue cities like New York have fought legal battles for their right to pass safe-haven laws to protect migrants. Now, the conflict over whether Texas can arrest and deport migrants is just part of a broader campaign that red states have directed against the Biden administration.

A coalition of Republican attorneys general also went to court to thwart the administration's efforts to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas drilling, block a program allowing humanitarian entry to migrants from specific countries and put an end to repressive efforts against migrants. firearm accessories, among others.

The balance of power between the national government and the states has been a source of tension in the United States since its founding, leading to civil war. But in the 21st century, as partisan polarization has intensified, it has evolved into a new dynamic, with states controlled by the party opposing the president regularly testing the boundaries.

Policy issues run the gamut — and include topics like abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage and even marijuana legalization — but the broader pattern is clear: Every time one side takes control of the central government, the other party uses its control over various states to try to resist national policies.

“We're seeing things we've never seen in the modern era,” said Heather K. Gerken, dean of Yale Law School, who wrote on contemporary federalism. “The kind of proxy war that is taking place is truly astonishing. This is all because the vicious partisanship that has long characterized Washington has now spread to the states.”

A clause in the Constitution states that federal laws are supreme, and the traditional understanding is that in the event of a conflict between federal and state laws, federal law prevails. At the same time, the Constitution grants only certain powers to the federal government and reserves the rest for the states. In practice, the powers of the two levels often overlap.

As a result, the lines aren't always clear, said Columbia law professor Jessica Bulman-Pozen, who has written about what she calls “partisan federalism.” This ambiguity, she explained, combined with the increasing nationalization of politics, led parties to use state control to resist presidents of the other party.

“We have a lot of political fights that are channeled through this federalist structure, where if you have a Democratic president, Republican-led states try to fight the presidency and the same thing with Democratic states under Republican administrations.” , Mrs. Bulman- said Pozen. “And some people's views on state power and federalism tend to change with different administrations and different exercises of power.”

Political scientists say the growing partisan gridlock that has encumbered Washington over the past 20 years has created the conditions for states that are controlled by one party or the other, such as Texas and California, to strike out on their own.

Liberal states like California and Democratic-led cities have adopted gun restrictions, stricter-than-national auto emissions standards, and sanctuary policies to limit how law enforcement Local orders can work with federal immigration officials. Meanwhile, Republican states have passed strict abortion bans and declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries.

“States have become more and more powerful,” said Lara M. Brown, a political scientist and author. “Most of us exist more under state laws than federal laws. Texans are happy to be able to walk around with their guns. And Californians are happy that others aren't.

Akhil Reed Amar, a professor at Yale Law School, said arguments about federalism pit two ideals against each other. The first is that everyone will be happier if different parts of the country can govern themselves, as long as people can move to places they agree with. The other is that to be a viable country with an integrated economy, there must be certain basic rules and uniform national rights.

History shows that there are limits to how states can govern, in part because what happens in one state can affect another.

A judge on the federal appeals panel charged with evaluating Texas immigration law considered that question Wednesday, asking whether the state could arrest an undocumented migrant who entered the state not from Mexico, but from Arizona. “Maybe?” responded Aaron L. Nielson, the solicitor general of Texas.

Just as in the 19th century, it proved untenable for the nation to endure as some states permitted slavery and others banned it – with conflicts over issues like what happened when a person reduced to slavery was taken or fled to a free state – the political reality is this. people try to use national control to impose a uniform vision.

For nearly 50 years, the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade meant that states could not ban abortion. Then, after a conservative majority overturned that decision in 2022, many Republican-controlled states placed strong restrictions on the procedure, unlike those under Democratic control.

But the question remains volatile. Disputes have arisen over whether anti-abortion states can criminalize traveling elsewhere to terminate a pregnancy and whether states supporting abortion rights can mail abortion pills to women living in states where the procedure is prohibited. And both supporters and opponents of abortion have proposed adopting national laws to impose their respective ideals across the country.

Battles over uniformity and diversity don't always play out in court. Despite federal laws banning marijuana, Washington has largely allowed more than 30 states to legalize and regulate medical or recreational cannabis, for example.

But very often these conflicts end in litigation, leaving the final decision in the hands of the Supreme Court. As the Court tilts increasingly to the right due to President Donald J. Trump's three nominations, Republicans have an advantage.

In 2015, for example, the court voted 5-4 to strike down laws in conservative-leaning states that limited marriage to heterosexual couples, allowing same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. In 2022, the court's expanded conservative majority — in addition to overturning Roe v. Wade – voted 6-3 to overturn laws in New York and other liberal-leaning states that have placed strict limits on carrying guns in public.

Yet the deepest roots of the conflicts lie in the structure of the United States government, which from the beginning put the powers of the national government in tension with those of the states.

“You see it over and over again,” said David I. Levine, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, law school who has tracked conflicts between California and the federal government during the Trump administration. “The Civil War. Civil rights, integration of schools. It's built into the system.

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