November 21, 2023 450 PM
AUSTIN — Last Wednesday, controversial immigration bill SB 4 passed the Texas House and headed for the governor’s desk. For the first time, the bill makes illegal entry into the U.S. — a federal crime enforced by federal immigration authorities — a state-level crime, enforceable by agencies like local sheriff’s departments and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Top state Republicans applauded the bill, arguing that such measures were necessary because the federal government was not doing enough to address a “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border. “SB 4 is the strongest border security bill Texas has ever passed,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick wrote in a press release.
SB 4 was part of a suite of immigration laws Republicans hoped to pass in the multiple special legislative sessions called by Governor Greg Abbott this year. Contentious debate over the state’s power to enforce immigration killed numerous bills along the way, triggering more and more special sessions and turning Texas’s part-time Legislature into an all-year affair.
The Texas Tribune reported that four special sessions are “unusual but not unheard of” — though a governor had never before called a fourth special session in the same year as a regular session. After a similarly controversial school voucher bill failed, speculation swirled around whether or not lawmakers might see a fifth session this year.
SB 4 creates a new state crime for entering the United States anywhere except through a port of entry. If a person charged with the crime doesn’t have a criminal history and agrees to the order, the state may choose not to prosecute the case and instead order that individual to return to Mexico.
Penalties for violations of the law are tiered. A person with no criminal history can be charged with a class B misdemeanor — if that person has been deported or “excluded” from the country before, that charge can be enhanced to a class A.
Felony-level charges apply for individuals with criminal histories: a third degree felony applies under SB 4 if the person has a record of two or more drug-related offenses or “crimes against a person.” Second-degree felony charges can be brought if the individual has a prior felony conviction in the United States.
The bill also protects law enforcement from litigation, making them “immune from liability for damages” incurred over the course of legal action triggered by their enforcement of the new law. The only places they are explicitly prohibited from enforcing the law are in schools, places of worship, healthcare facilities and facilities serving survivors of sexual assault.
The bill also requires collecting extensive information about individuals returned to Mexico under the law, including “all available biographical information” and “applicable photographic or biometric measures.”
Neither of the Big Bend’s representatives in the Legislature voted in favor of the bill.
State Senator César Blanco pointed out that existing federal immigration laws did not deter people from seeking entry into the United States. On a more practical level, he felt that it was a waste of taxpayer money for both the state and federal governments to assume the same responsibilities.
He also worried that the new law would instead cast unfair fear and suspicion on people from border communities — potentially leading to violence like the racially-motivated El Paso shooting that devastated his hometown in 2019. “We need to stop criminalizing and dehumanizing immigrants,” he wrote in a statement. “That attitude is extremely dangerous to our border communities and has extreme consequences.”
State Representative Eddie Morales was concerned that the bill would tie up even more of the state’s funding in the courts — some policy experts believe the law won’t survive in the wake of Arizona v. USA, a 2012 Supreme Court decision that shot down a similar law that would have superseded federal immigration authority.
Morales echoed Blanco’s sentiments that the new penalties would not deter migrants. “Migrants decided the moment they left their friends, family, and homeland they were willing to risk the dangers of dehydration, abduction, and murder—a prison sentence that accompanies 3 warm meals a day, a roof over their head, and bed to sleep in is not going to deter them,” he wrote to The Big Bend Sentinel. “SB 4 will not work and only waste taxpayer dollars on incarcerating migrants who wanted nothing more than to live the American Dream and provide for their families.”