Texas Senate deliberates bills that would enhance penalties for immigration-related crimes 

AUSTIN — This year’s legislative session is set to end on Monday, leaving lawmakers racing against the clock to give their bills a shot at being signed by the governor. Many legislators have focused on immigration — more specifically, criminalizing immigration in a way that they hope will deter people attempting to enter the country. 

Lawmakers are proactively anticipating a rise in the number of cases in the court system and are trying to create pathways to relieve that pressure. Last week, The Big Bend Sentinel reported on HB 7, a bill passed by the House that would create a “Border Protection Unit” tasked with assisting existing law enforcement on the border as well as a complementary court system to help the strained legal system in local governments along the Rio Grande. 

Since last week, HB 7 has been amended by the Senate to clarify a part of the bill that alarmed human rights groups: language borrowed from an earlier Republican-sponsored bill would have allowed for civilians to serve as law enforcement officers in the “Border Protection Unit.” The bill has since been amended to clarify the duties of “commissioned” and “noncommissioned” unit officers, and clarified that only licensed law enforcement officers may make arrests. 

The bill also created a new criminal offense for migrants who enter the state anywhere except a port of entry. 

The Senate’s amended version of the bill now returns to the House — the two chambers will have to agree on a version of the legislation if it is to be sent to the governor’s desk.

Experts believe that HB 7, if passed, may have its day in court — Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the Biden administration a dozen times, hoping to push the limits of what the state can do.

Fatima Menéndez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund explained that Paxton’s efforts directly challenge court precedent upholding the “supremacy clause” of the U.S. Constitution, putting federal power above state power. Immigration offenses — traditionally — are federal offenses. “Empowering state officers to decide who unlawfully crosses the border with Mexico is inconsistent with federal immigration law, which brings that power only to federal officers,” she explained. 

Menéndez and other advocates were also concerned about HB 800, a bill that would enhance state penalties for smuggling-related offenses. The state enhanced penalties in the last legislative cycle as well — before September 2021, in order to charge someone with human smuggling, the state had to provide proof that money had changed hands. That requirement no longer applies.

In the Big Bend, the enhanced charges led local law enforcement to worry about running out of jail space. Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson applied for funding to expand the county jail — a request that was ultimately denied. 

HB 800 takes the last legislative cycle’s penalties even further, instituting a 10-year minimum jail sentence for felony human smuggling — according to the bill’s authors, “current punishment for offenses such as smuggling of persons, operating a stash house and evading arrest do not provide a sufficient deterrent.” 

The bill upgrades penalties for operating a stash house — in other words, a place to temporarily hide people or narcotics — from a Class A misdemeanor to a third degree felony with five years minimum jail time. That charge becomes a second-degree felony if individuals held in a stash house suffer sexual assault, serious injury or death. 

Nicholas Hudson, policy strategist at ACLU Texas, said that the grounds for these charges could be extremely vague — as an example, someone who gives directions to two or more people crossing agricultural land could be charged with a felony. 

Hudson felt that enhancing already enhanced penalties would have the opposite effect from the intent of the bill. “It would actually make Texas less safe — the research is clear,” he said. “Any amount of prison time increases the risk of future crimes … Mandatory minimums exacerbate the situation.”

For now, proponents of both bills have remained quiet, waiting for pending votes to shake out before Monday. Representative Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City is the lead sponsor on both HB 7 and HB 800. His office did not return a request for comment from The Big Bend Sentinel.