COVID-19 and Civil Liberties

Last updated: April 2020

Even in a public health emergency, governments still have the duty to protect our rights. Yet since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have witnessed countless attempts by state and local agencies to infringe upon Texans’ civil liberties.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the ACLU of Texas has been monitoring government responses to the health crisis closely, and we have acted quickly to protect civil rights and civil liberties while also upholding evidence-based guidance from public health experts. Specifically, we have aggressively acted on behalf of people whose rights and health are at heightened risk, including protections for voters, people in the criminal legal system, and those seeking access to critical abortion care.

Read more about the actions we are taking during this unprecedented time:

Challenging police brutality at protests

  • Ahead of Juneteenth protests, we demanded that the largest law enforcement agencies in Texas publicly commit to ending the use of force and violence against protesters and to end mass arrests of peaceful protesters. The letter to local law enforcement agencies details ten principles to protect protesters' health and constitutional rights.
  • We wrote to mayors, city council members, police chiefs, district attorneys, county judges, and county commissioners calling them to take immediate action to safeguard the health and safety of protesters and protect their constitutional rights to free expression and assembly.

Reducing mass incarceration in Texas jails and prisons

Safeguarding access to the ballot box

Protecting immigrants and asylum

  • On June 10, we and partners filed a legal challenge against the Trump administration’s decision to stop anyone from seeking asylum because of the pandemic. Besides violating U.S. immigration law, expulsions of asylum seekers also violate the nation’s international obligations to protect people fleeing persecution and torture.
  • On April 21, we sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection demanding that CBP, including Border Patrol, temporarily suspend civil immigration enforcement, cease any enforcement at sensitive locations, release everyone in CBP detention, and halt all border wall construction during the COVID-19 epidemic.
  • Victory: On April 17, a U.S. District Court granted our request to release a person who is highly vulnerable to serious illness and death from novel coronavirus from MPC. This is the first decision in Texas granting someone's release because of the danger posed by COVID-19. Two other plaintiffs were released on bond after our lawsuit was filed.
  • On April 8, we and our partners sued U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on behalf of four immigrants detained in Conroe, Texas at the Montgomery Processing Center (MPC).
  • It has long been documented that DHS subjects people to inhumane conditions inside detention facilities. Now, these conditions are creating a ticking timebomb for a viral outbreak. We responded by filing an official complaint with the Office of the Inspector General, the internal watchdog agency overseeing Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
  • Read the first-hand accounts of asylum seekers stuck in Northern Mexico, where the global coronavirus outbreak has added a new, frightening layer of risk into their lives.

Defending the right to have an abortion

Explaining stay-home orders: What you need to know

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced officials at every level of government to take urgent action to protect public health. However, the Constitution still applies, even during a public health crisis. Here's what you need to know:

  • If you are stopped by police while outside of your home, stay calm and remember that you have rights. You have a right to remain silent and you also have a right to film the police.
  • The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the State of Texas and local governments authority to respond to emergencies, including pandemics. Once the governor and local governments declare a state of emergency, they may create emergency management plans that control the movement of people when it is “necessary for the preservation of life or other disaster mitigation.”
  • The government's power is not unlimited — you still have constitutional rights under stay-home orders. As governments respond to this public health crisis, the measures they take to protect public health can still be examined in court.
  • You are not required to have a letter from your employer if you work in an essential business. There is no show-me-your-papers rule requiring you to carry documentation or provide any proof about who you are or where you work.

The ACLU of Texas urges everyone to read and follow their local stay-home orders for the sake of their own health and the health of the entire community. Learn more about what your rights are, and how to protect them, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other resources

This page will continue to provide updates on how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Texans' civil rights and civil liberties. We will also be sharing relevant community and statewide news and resources here.