Federal judge calls Iowa’s immigration law ‘not defensible,’ grants injunction

Protestors at the preliminary hearing in federal court on SF2340 on June 10th. Photo by Tar Macias / Hola Iowa

By William Morris, Des Moines Register

A new Iowa law imposing state criminal penalties on undocumented immigrants is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced, a federal judge ruled Monday.

The “illegal reentry” law, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in April, made it a state offense for people to enter Iowa after being deported from or denied entry to the U.S., or failing to depart when ordered. It follows a similar law recently adopted in Texas. Both laws are backed by state officials who have been critical of what they perceive to be inadequate federal immigration enforcement by the Biden administration.


Like the earlier Texas law, Iowa’s law now has been blocked in court. The federal government filed suit against Iowa in May, arguing that immigration enforcement is explicitly a federal responsibility and that the state’s law is invalid under the U.S. Constitution. The Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice filed a similar suit, and on Monday, U.S. District Judge Stephen Locher granted a motion for a preliminary injunction in both cases.

“As a matter of politics, the new legislation might be defensible. As a matter of constitutional law, it is not,” Locher wrote. “Under binding Supreme Court precedent, Senate File 2340 is preempted in its entirety by federal law and thus is invalid under the Supremacy Clause” of the U.S. Constitution.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Attorney General said they will appeal the decision. Activists with faith-based immigrant rights group Escucha Mi Voz Iowa in a news conference said they had mixed emotions about the ruling, calling it a victory but saying they expect the fight against the law will continue.


They said they will carry on with plans for A Day Without Immigrants protests July 1 in Des Moines, Iowa City and Waterloo.

Protestors at the preliminary hearing in federal court on SF2340 on June 10th.
Photo by Tar Macias / Hola Iowa

Judge: Law blocked by 2012 Supreme Court ruling


As in the litigation against the Texas law, Locher found the Iowa law runs afoul of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. In that case, the court largely struck down an Arizona law creating state-level immigration offenses, finding the state laws interfered with and were preempted by federal law.

Locher also wrote that the law conflicts with federal rules for deportations, including treaties limiting which migrants can lawfully be removed and to what countries. He said that “creates an untenable dichotomy between federal and state law in an area where the Supreme Court has recognized that the United States must speak with a single, harmonious voice.”


In addition, he found that both the federal government and plaintiff represented by the Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice have shown they face a likelihood of “irreparable harm” if the law takes effect, and that they and public face greater risk of adverse consequences if the law wrongly takes effect than if it is wrongly enjoined.

Judge finds law omits key safeguards for immigrants

Locher questioned how attorneys for the state claimed the law will be enforced.

The Iowa Migrant Movement lawsuit identifies as plaintiffs several individuals who were at one time ordered removed from or denied entry to the U.S., but later received Green Cards and are lawful permanent residents of Iowa.

The state argued in court that those plaintiffs lack standing to sue because the law does not apply to them. Locher, though, wrote that nothing in the law prevents prosecutors from charging people who eventually attained lawful residency in the U.S. To the contrary, he noted that Iowa’s law is patterned after a federal illegal reentry law, but specifically omits language in that law stating that it does not apply to current lawful residents.

“There is no exception… for an alien whose removal order has been waived or who otherwise has been granted permission to be in the country after previously having been ‘denied admission’ or ‘excluded, deported, or removed,'” Locher wrote. “To the contrary, the statute’s repeated and insistent use of the past tense… indicates that a person will be criminally liable based on what happened in the past, not based on current legal status.”

Even if Bird does not intend to wield the law in that way, Locher wrote, county prosecutors are not bound by that choice, and Iowans who are lawful residents but who had prior removal orders have a reasonable fear of prosecution.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and Attorney General Brenna Bird defend law; activists expect ‘long fight’

In statements Monday afternoon, both Reynolds and Bird defended the law.

“I am disappointed in today’s court decision that blocks Iowa from stopping illegal reentry and keeping our communities safe,” Bird said. “Since Biden refuses to secure our borders, he has left states with no choice but to do the job for him.”

Reynolds said the law is needed to protect Iowans from crime, human trafficking and drug overdoses, which supporters of the law say are linked to a surge of undocumented immigration at the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Plainly, the Biden administration is failing to do their job and enforce federal immigration laws allowing millions to enter and re-enter without any consequence or delay,” she said.

Members of Escucha Mi Voz Iowa in an evening news conference on Zoom called on Bird to “stop appealing this bad law” and said they will not cease their efforts to defeat it until they receive a definitive judgment against it.

They expressed concern that, if enforced, it could result in deportations that split up families.

“We know the fight is not over yet,” said Yaneli Canales of Iowa City. “We know the attorney general is going to appeal the ruling. That’s why we’re still out knocking on doors and continuing to organize.”

Monday’s ruling “is just a step in the process,” Canales said.

Father Nils de Jesus Hernandez of Waterloo’s Queen of Peace Parish, speaking of plans for the July 1 protests, said he expects 500 to 1,000 marchers at the church at 320 Mulberry St. Events that day in Des Moines will begin on the south side of the Iowa Capitol, organizers said, and in Iowa City, at the Catholic Worker Safe House and Shelter, 113 S. Johnson St.

The gatherings are set to begin at 7 p.m.

“It will be a great day for us,” Hernandez said, adding, “It is a long fight that must be continued. But God is with us.”

Will law be enforced?

Some Iowa officials have previously voiced reservations about the new law, with law enforcement leaders and prosecutors questioning whether they have the training or authority to take on immigration enforcement.

Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert said in March his department is “not equipped, funded or staffed” to assume immigration enforcement responsibilities.

“Simply stated, not only do we not have the resources to assume this additional task, we don’t even have the ability to perform this function,” Wingert said.

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