Big Bend state reps Morales, Blanco vote for enhanced human smuggling penalties

A group of apprehended undocumented immigrants lineup at the U.S.-Mexico border as they prepare to walk back into Mexico after being expelled from the U.S. under Title 42.

AUSTIN — Last Wednesday, the Texas House of Representatives passed SB 4, a bill that would increase penalties for human smuggling and the operation of “stash houses.” Pending the governor’s signature, the law will increase the mandatory minimum for those convicted of human smuggling from two to ten years.

The bill’s success represents a tipping point in Governor Abbott’s third-called special legislative session, which began on October 9. So far, immigration has dominated discussion on the floor — the governor’s other priorities for this session, including contentious school voucher and COVID restriction bills, may have to wait until after this session ends on November 9. 

This year, state Republican representatives have honed in on passing restrictive immigration legislation in response to a perceived “border crisis,” hoping to fill gaps left by “federal immigration laws President Joe Biden refuses to enforce,” per a statement released by Abbott’s office. 

Human smuggling was also a hot topic during the 2021 legislative session, when the requirements for charging an individual with human smuggling were relaxed and the crime became a state felony. Before the law took effect, state prosecutors needed to prove that money had changed hands to accuse someone of being a smuggler — after its implementation, that evidence was no longer needed and all immigration-related crimes brought in by state law enforcement became felonies. 

Those enhanced charges were not universally popular with local law enforcement: in the Big Bend, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson blamed the enhanced penalties for filling the Brewster County Jail, a problem that would require a pricey expansion project to address

Dodson told The Sentinel that the county had processed more felonies in the six months after the law took effect than the total number of felonies for the entire previous year. Brewster County makes money off of housing federal prisoners — with so many state felonies, the county no longer could rely on that income stream. “We’re getting hammered,” he said. 

For Presidio County law enforcement, jail space was not the issue — simply that they weren’t arresting that many folks suspected of smuggling. In the same time frame cited by Dodson, only six people were apprehended for human smuggling out of around 200 people detained for immigration-related crimes.

Enhanced penalties for human smuggling have also been a major talking point in the statehouse this year — SB 4 borrows language from HB 800, a bill that died in the Senate back in May. HB 800 would also have raised the mandatory minimum for smuggling to 10 years; if smugglers were also implicated in bodily injury or the death of a migrant, that minimum would have been set at 15 years. 

Both HB 800 and its successor bill SB 4 were popular on the Republican side of the aisle, but also earned a few borderland Democrat sponsors — both Senator César Blanco and Representative Eddie Morales, whose constituents include tri-county residents, voted in support.

Blanco cited an uptick in apprehensions of smugglers and owners of stash houses in his hometown of El Paso — up 80% over the course of a single year, per statistics provided by CBP. “This bill will crack down on cartel smuggling and stash house operations with enhanced penalties to better protect our local neighborhoods and migrants preyed upon by the cartels,” he wrote in a press release. 

Morales’ team echoed Blanco’s anti-organized crime rhetoric. “Everyone in [my district] knows the severity of human smuggling and the cartel’s profits behind it,” he wrote. 

Not everyone familiar with the legislation thought it would have the intended effect. Some felt that instead of targeting cartel bogeymen, the law would likely catch vulnerable, unaffiliated folks in the crosshairs. Kristen Etter of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) — a nonprofit offering free legal services to underprivileged people across Texas — said that her organization had seen human-smuggling related cases balloon in recent years.

Before HB 4 passed the Senate, Etter testified before the Senate Committee on State Affairs that TRLA had rendered services to over 3,000 individuals charged with state-level immigration offenses since enhanced penalties took effect in 2021 — a large percentage of whom had been charged with human smuggling. 

She had also observed a particularly troubling trend in more populated areas along the border: rather than transporting migrants themselves, people involved in high-level smuggling operations posted ads on social media looking for drivers. Those who responded — typically younger, vulnerable folks looking for extra cash — signed up, not aware of the severe consequences.

Under the new laws, transporting migrants in a vehicle — knowingly or unknowingly, concealed or unconcealed — now carries a 10-year minimum sentence. “We don’t have that for rape, we don’t have that for murder,” she said. 

With SB 4 almost on the books, lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the aisle have their eyes on HB 4, a bill that would create a new state crime for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border anywhere except for a port of entry. HB 4 borrows language from SB 11, another special session bill that died in committee. 

HB 4, SB 4 and other recent Texas immigration laws have proven controversial — with some arguing that states do not have the power to supersede federal immigration enforcement. Opponents cite Arizona v. United States, a 2012 Supreme Court decision that struck down similar efforts to expand local law enforcements’ power to curtail immigration-related crimes. 

Senator Blanco spoke out against the measure. “The federal government already has an offense for unlawful entry, and that has not turned away desperate migrants looking for a better life,” he said. 

At press time, HB 4 was headed for a series of public hearings. The Big Bend Sentinel will continue to report on this special session’s legislation as details become available. 

The offices of Eddie Morales and Greg Abbott did not return requests for further comment.