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Texas Senate committee moves quickly to advance immigration and border legislation

 A Texas DPS vehicle sits at the border fence in El Paso on May 11, 2023
Julián Aguilar
The Texas Newsroom
The five-member panel heard bills Tuesday that would increase penalties for human smuggling and make unauthorized entry a state crime.

A Texas Senate committee quickly advanced controversial legislation to expand state-based immigration enforcement measures on Tuesday, wasting no time on the second day of a special legislative session where Gov. Greg Abbott deemed border security a priority.

The five-person committee passed out Senate Bill 4, by state Sen. Bill Flores, R-Pleasanton, which would increase penalties for human smugglers and operators of stash houses. The bill makes human smuggling a third-degree felony that carries with it a 10-year minimum sentence.

“The intent of this legislation is to go after those who are profiting off and endangering the lives of innocent people,” Flores said as he introduced the bill.

The smuggling sentence could be reduced to five years if the alleged smuggler cooperates with law enforcement on other investigations. The stash house provision increases the penalty to a five-year prison term, which increases to 10 years if the stash house is operated in a declared disaster area.

However, SB 4 does allow the smuggling penalty to be reduced if a person can show the migrant being transported was a relative through the third degree of consanguinity (related by blood), or through marriage.

The bill passed unanimously out of committee and was supported by the two Democratic members who represent the border: state Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso.

That came despite witness testimony from civil rights groups who said the measure wouldn’t have its intended effect and would levy harsh penalties against first-time offenders.

“Mandatory minimums are very ineffective at deterring crime, they create more problems than they solve,” said Lauren Johnson, a policy and advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “It’s important for judges to maintain judicial discretion and I think taking it away makes things more dangerous.”

The panel also advanced Senate Bill 11, by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury. If SB 11 were to become law, it would create a new state crime for entering Texas from Mexico at any point other than an authorized port of entry. The charges would range from a class A misdemeanor to possible state felony charges, ultimately depending upon the accused person’s criminal history, including repeat offenses for entry.

Birdwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Border Security, said he anticipated court challenges should the bill pass. Opponents of state-based immigration efforts have argued that enforcement is mainly a federal responsibility. But Birdwell added that, as written, the legislation should pass the sovereignty test.

“It is carefully tailored to avoid intruding on federal immigration enforcement authority while providing law enforcement with an important new tool to deter improper or unlawful entry into Texas,” he said.

Sen. Hinojosa voted against the legislation after arguing it wasn’t a real solution to the problem of unauthorized immigration, adding it would swell county jail populations to record levels.

“I know what the purpose and the objective of what Senate Bill 11 is. But let’s talk about the practical costs,” he said. “Some of the effects of this legislation is not practical.”

Roberto Lopez, an advocacy manager with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the legislation could cripple a migrant’s ability to apply for asylum, which is legal under federal and international law. Although a person arrested and charged under the proposed measure would eventually be transferred to federal custody to make their asylum claim, a conviction could affect their chances of being granted the protection.

“With that criminal charge, their chances of seeking asylum later on are going to be significantly reduced if not impossible,” he testified before the committee. “The process of charging someone through Operation Lone Star is faster than asylum.”

Sen. Blanco joined Hinojosa in opposing the bill, but it still advanced because of the Republicans’ three-to-two majority on the panel.

Senate Bill 4, the smuggling bill, could hit the floor of the Texas Senate as early as Thursday, Birdwell said.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

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