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Supreme Court's Alito pauses Texas law on illegal border crossings

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Monday temporarily blocked a judicial decision that would let a Texas law take effect to give state officials broad powers to arrest, prosecute and order the removal of people who illegally cross the border from Mexico.

Alito issued his order - requested by Democratic President Joe Biden's administration - after the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Saturday paused a federal judge's ruling that had blocked the Republican-backed Texas law.

His order is set to expire on March 13 but he or the full Supreme Court could take further action before then. Alito handles certain emergency matters involving cases from a group of states including Texas.

The 5th Circuit ruling would have permitted the measure, known as SB4, to go into effect even as Biden's administration presses forward with a legal challenge claiming the statute unlawfully interferes with the federal government's enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.

The 5th Circuit stayed its decision for seven days to give the administration a chance to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice Department filed a petition with the Supreme Court on Monday arguing that the 5th Circuit's decision was wrong and that letting the law take effect would harm the U.S. relationship with Mexico and other countries.

"And beyond its disruptive foreign relations effects, SB4 would create chaos in the United States' efforts to administer federal immigration laws in Texas," Justice Department lawyers wrote.

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

If Alito had not acted, the law would have taken effect on March 10 pending an appeal of last week's decision by U.S. District Judge David Ezra in Austin. In his ruling, Ezra had said the Biden administration is likely to prevail in its legal challenge, citing a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down key provisions of a similar Arizona immigration law.

Immigrant advocates and American Civil Liberties Union of Texas have said that the Texas law "overrides federal immigration law" and "fuels racial profiling."

Migrants and asylum seekers who cross outside of ports of entry can already be charged with illegal entry or re-entry under federal laws.

The Texas law would make it a state crime to illegally enter or re-enter Texas from a foreign country and would give state and local law enforcement the power to arrest and prosecute violators. It also would allow state judges to order that individuals leave the country, with prison sentences up to 20 years for those who refuse to comply.

The law is part of a larger effort by the Republican-led state to crack down on irregular border crossings. Paxton, Republican Governor Greg Abbott and other state officials have blamed Biden for a record increase in illegal migration and have called the state's actions, including installing razor wire fencing at the border and a floating barrier in the Rio Grande river, necessary because of federal inaction.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Will Dunham, Alexia Garamfalvi and Jonathan Oatis, Aurora Ellis)