Bill that would create new state crime for illegal entry into Texas dies in Senate

AUSTIN — On Sunday, a controversial immigration bill creating a new state crime for illegal entry into Texas died in the Senate. HB 4 — which would allow state peace officers to arrest migrants for crossing illegally — was scheduled to be discussed this weekend. The proposal passed the House, but didn’t make it to the Senate floor before the upper chamber called a recess until Tuesday. 

At press time, HB 4 had not yet been picked back up. Governor Greg Abbott has called four special sessions so far this year, hoping to tackle unfinished business from the regular session regarding school vouchers, immigration and other hot topics. 

The latest session began Tuesday afternoon, and Abbott pledged to revisit the bill. “Texas will also arrest people for illegal entry into our state from a foreign nation, and authorize the removal of anyone who illegally enters our state,” his office wrote in a press release.

The bill was originally paired in a package with SB 4, a bill raising mandatory minimums for human smuggling and the operation of “stash houses” from two years to 10 years. SB 4 was successful, but its sister bill will likely have to wait for another special session for a chance to be signed into law. 

HB 4 would have created a new state crime for illegal entry into Texas — a class B misdemeanor, with the potential to become a felony depending on the criminal history of the person arrested. The law specified that a peace officer must have probable cause to believe that an individual had crossed the border somewhere other than a port of entry or had presented “intentionally false or misleading representation” to gain entry.

The law would have required those convicted of the crime to be turned over to federal immigration authorities at a port of entry and returned to Mexico or their country of origin. 

The bill passed the House on October 26 after Republican lawmakers shot down a number of amendments proposed by the other side of the aisle. One Democratic provision that made it to the version of the bill presented to the Senate Committee on Border Security would have prohibited peace officers from making arrests in facilities dedicated to protecting victims of sexual assault. 

HB 4 drew ire from its opponents for attempting to supersede federal law, which officially enforces and prosecutes immigration-related crime. Some of Texas’ top Republicans believe the challenge to federal power was worth the risk of a legal battle — including state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has sued the Biden administration over 20 times for a perceived failure to address a “crisis” at the Texas-Mexico border. 

Eddie Morales, the Big Bend’s representative in the state House of Representatives, voted against the bill. 

Though HB 4 failed to reach the Senate, Senator César Blanco spoke out against SB 11, an earlier failed bill that introduced the concept of making illegal entry into Texas a state crime. “The federal government already has an offense for unlawful entry,” he wrote in a press release. “This bill will only overwhelm local prisons and court systems with non-violent offenders, and raise taxes on border communities while doing nothing to stem the flow of migrants looking for a better life. We can do better than this.”

Some local law enforcement officials were not sold on the idea, either. Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson has long been critical of layering state charges on top of federal charges, on the grounds that the extra pressure to enforce immigration law stretches his already-small department thin and fills the county jail. “I just want the federal government to do its job,” he said.