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Texas doubles down on illegal crossings

Some advocates question the state’s authority over immigration

A mother helping her child over the barbed wire fence into Eagle Pass, Texas, August 25 Getty Images/Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP

Texas doubles down on illegal crossings

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers encountered a record high total of about 3 million immigrants nationwide last fiscal year, with 1,390,714 illegal immigrants, or more than 40 percent of the national number, crossing in Texas. The influx comes even after the state invested more than $4 billion in curtailing illegal immigration since Gov. Greg Abbott announced his border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, in 2021, leaving legislators reaching for more solutions.

Last week, during their fourth special legislative session this year, Texas lawmakers doubled down on border security and sent Senate Bill 4 to Abbott’s desk. The measure, which Abbott is expected to sign, allows state and local law enforcement to charge immigrants who cross the border illegally with a state misdemeanor. Immigrants apprehended under the law must either follow a magistrate judge’s order to return to Mexico or face prosecution.

Immigration advocates worry the new legislation will encourage racial profiling and make immigrant communities less safe, since crime victims and witnesses may hesitate to talk to law enforcement. Critics also question Texas’ authority to enforce immigration law. But proponents of the measure say it doesn’t conflict with Supreme Court precedent and that the state has no choice but to step in where federal policy is ineffective.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas for refusing to remove a string of large orange buoys erected to block illegal immigrants from crossing the Rio Grande. That same month, Florida enacted stricter measures in response to a 400 percent increase in illegal immigrant apprehensions and encounters in fiscal year 2023. Among other provisions, the law made it a third-degree felony to “knowingly and willfully” transport an illegal immigrant into the state.

Under the bill, an illegal immigrant who refuses to follow a judge’s initial order to leave the country may be charged with anything from a Class A misdemeanor to a second-degree felony, depending on whether the individual has crossed the border illegally before or has a criminal record. If convicted, they could spend up to two years behind bars before authorities deport them.

Texas lawmakers also approved another immigration measure to provide $1.54 billion in new funding for Operation Lone Star. The measure includes funding for border barriers and the deployment of state troopers to Colony Ridge, a development outside Houston that Republicans argue has become a magnet for illegal immigrants.

Kathryn Freeman, the Texas advocacy strategist for World Relief Texas, is concerned Senate Bill 4 deputizes local law enforcement officers unfamiliar with immigration law.

“There are a lot of concerns around what that means for people that are vulnerable, people who are applying for asylum,” said Freeman. Immigrants deported back across the border often encounter violence, exploitation, and “forced labor situations where they’re in temporary housing, tense situations, homelessness,” she said.

Freeman has spoken with Texas pastors who say their church families won’t travel to church together in one car out of fear they may be pulled over and asked for their immigration papers. She worries how the law might affect ministries serving both legal and illegal immigrants. “It’s not really clear if they’re going to be stopping people,” Freeman said. “Many churches do ministry in neighborhoods and communities. It’s not really clear what it means for those kinds of things.”

But Selene Rodriguez, a policy director for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said fears about law enforcement terrorizing immigrant communities are overblown. An officer must have “probable cause” that a person illegally entered Texas from Mexico to make an arrest, she said. State authorities must witness the immigrant crossing in person or on a security device. They can also apprehend an individual based on credible information from another law enforcement agency.

“That fear isn’t necessary,” Rodriguez said. “We want people to come to our state. We know why people want to come to our state … but we want them to come here safely in a humane manner, not at the hands of the cartels.”

A growing number of immigrants illegally cross into New Mexico before entering Texas. The legislation does not permit state and local law enforcement to arrest these immigrants since they did not cross into the state directly from Mexico. The bill also prohibits law enforcement from arresting immigrants at schools, places of religious worship, healthcare facilities, or centers for victims of violence or assault. Since misdemeanors have a two-year statute of limitations, illegal immigrants who crossed the border more than two years ago won’t be affected.

Rodriguez, who was born and raised in the small border town of Del Rio, Texas, said reactions among border communities to the new legislation are mixed. “Every part of the border is different,” she said.

El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles has reservations. He said the measure could strain local jails and burden taxpayers. “We have pushed community policing, and laws like these really work to erode that relationship we have with our community,” he said during a news conference.

Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe is backing the law. His office, responsible for a border county spanning 1,365 square miles, has already engaged in 226 pursuits of illegal immigrants this year, compared to 168 for all of last year.

The bill doesn’t include funding for its enforcement, but Operation Lone Star already allocates millions of dollars to local law enforcement, jails, and court administration.

Mexico protested the measure after it passed the Texas Senate. “The government of Mexico categorically rejects any measure that allows state or local authorities to detain and return nationals or foreigners to Mexican territory,” Mexico’s secretary of foreign relations said in a statement. But the government did not explicitly refuse to accept immigrants sent back across the border by Texas authorities.

Democratic lawmakers who oppose the law claim it usurps the role of the U.S. government. “Senate Bill 4 is the broadest, most invasive piece of legislation to ever potentially challenge the very nature of our federal and state power,” Rep. Victoria Neave Criado of Dallas said during a debate over the bill on the House floor. “The power to enforce immigration is unquestionably exclusively a federal power.”

Neave Criado accused the bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. David Spiller of Jacksboro, of using the bill to challenge the 2012 Supreme Court decision Arizona v. United States. That ruling declared that federal law preempts any state immigration law that punishes immigrants for violating federal immigration laws or working in the United States illegally. It also struck down a provision of a 2010 Arizona law, known as the “show me your papers” law, allowing law enforcement to demand immigration papers and make arrests based on probable cause that the suspect was living in the United States illegally.

Spiller, who is also an attorney, has denied that lawmakers wrote the Texas bill to challenge Supreme Court precedent. “He’s been very adamant that they crafted [the bill] to not interfere with the outcome of Arizona v. U.S.,” said Rodriguez with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“You can’t just pull someone over or walk up to them on the street,” she said. “It has to be that they have evidence that this person crossed from Mexico into the state of Texas. It’s not an illegal immigration roundup type of bill.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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