October 4, 2023 843 PM
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, Representative Tony Gonzales — the Big Bend’s representative in Congress — filed the Strengthening Authorities for Expedited Removal (SAFER) Act, which would impose stricter asylum standards for applicants. Just a week prior, Gonzales had filed another immigration-related bill aimed at enhancing penalties for those evading arrest from immigration authorities.
The two bills were filed — just after and just before, respectively — an impending government shutdown, which would have temporarily suspended “nonessential” federal government operations until agreements over funding could be reached. Late Saturday night, President Joe Biden approved a stopgap measure that will keep the government running until November 17.
At the eleventh hour, immigration became a sticking point for Republicans in response to what the party considers a crisis at the border. Some Democrats pointed fingers across the aisle, opining that all the concern about immigration is an attempt to cover up internal tensions within the party.
Gonzales’ bills stuck with the theme — and the congressman’s own convictions that the state of U.S. immigration policy is dire. On Thursday, Gonzales toured the border with Elon Musk at Eagle Pass, which has been a focal point for concern regarding large numbers of asylum-seekers over the past few years.
In a video posted exclusively to X, Musk’s social media platform, Tony Gonzales introduced a number of local officials who spoke to what they felt was a skewed narrative. “We’ve really been at the epicenter of this border crisis,” he said of his district, which covers 832 miles of the Rio Grande. “A lot of my sheriffs and local elected officials are being forgotten — their stories aren’t getting out.”
The first of Gonzales’ most recent immigration bills, dubbed the Raul Gonzalez Officer Safety Act, would enhance penalties for anyone “intentionally fleeing” U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or law enforcement assisting CBP. The legislation is supported by Arizona Rep. Juan Ciscomani, who represents a chunk of the land border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.
The bill’s namesake, Raul Gonzalez, was a Border Patrol agent killed in a high-speed chase while pursuing a group of undocumented migrants. Under the new legislation, such an incident resulting in death could result in life sentences.
Rep. Gonzales felt that high-speed chases were an increasingly dangerous fact of life along the border. “High-speed migrant pursuits have become a weekly if not daily occurrence in border communities,” he wrote in a press release. “Enough is enough. This legislation will impose felony charges on bad actors that endanger our Border Patrol Agents and law enforcement officers who work tirelessly to keep Americans safe.”
Landon Hutchens, spokesperson for CBP’s Big Bend Sector, said he wasn’t aware of any high-speed chases occurring in the tri-county area. He explained that the geography of the Big Bend made it difficult — most migrants cross in rough, isolated terrain, and the region’s roads are few and sparsely trafficked.
Though the agency doesn’t keep official statistics, Hutchens said that — anecdotally speaking — high-speed chases were much more routine in more urban sectors like neighboring El Paso.
In his public messaging around the bill, Gonzales specifically references these “high-speed chases” — but that language does not appear in the actual text of the bill, nor does any mention of human smuggling. Instead, the specific offense described by the bill is “evading arrest or detention while operating a motor vehicle” within 100 miles of the border.
The bill also specifies that the accused must be evading arrest by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or by “any pursuing Federal, state or local law enforcement officer who is actively assisting, or under the command of, the U.S. Border Patrol.”
Under new programs like Operation Stonegarden and Operation Lone Star — which provide funding for local governments along the border tasked with assisting CBP operations — law enforcement officers in municipal police departments and county sheriff’s offices are assumed to be operating in conjunction with federal law enforcement in their day-to-day activities.
The most recent bill filed by Gonzales — the SAFER Act — focuses on the asylum process. The week before the congressman’s meeting with Musk, Texas Public Radio reported that 6,000 migrants had crossed the border at Del Rio seeking asylum in a matter of days.
The text of the SAFER Act directly references “an irregular migration influx,” alluding to the recent events at Eagle Pass and earlier episodes at the nearby port of Del Rio.
The bill has three prongs: making it easier for agents to reject asylum-seekers in order to stem the flow of migrants seeking refuge; enlisting the help of Latin American countries to implement stricter immigration policies of their own; and hiring additional federal immigration judges to handle a growing backlog of asylum claims.
The bill would alter the language of the Immigration and Nationality Act in order to give authorities more leeway in determining whether an asylum-seeker has a “credible fear of persecution,” a requisite for being granted asylum rather than expedited removal under the law.
Gonzales felt that because of this legal backlog, migrants without legitimate claims to asylum were wasting precious time and exploiting the ability to stay in the United States for an extended period without earning official status “without consequences.”
“Together, these provisions would reduce false asylum claims and disincentivize chain migration,” he wrote in a press release.