Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Texas lawmakers try, once again, to pass contentious state immigration laws in new special session

People sitting and standing by a concertina wire fence in the evening.
Eric Gay
Gov. Greg Abbott has called Texas lawmakers back for a fourth special session this week, saying the state must pass measures that would curb illegal migration.

A Texas House committee will again hear testimony Thursday on a controversial immigration enforcement bill after prior attempts failed to make it past the finish line.

The proposal, House Bill 4 by state Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, creates a state crime for unauthorized entry into Texas from a foreign country. The latest version also contains new, agreed-upon language from both chambers after a dispute between the two derailed a similar measure last week.

The bill is an effort to address Gov. Greg Abbott’s order for lawmakers to address immigration and border security during the current special session of the Texas Legislature, the fourth Abbott has called since late May.

Spiller’s previous bill allowed local or state peace officers to order a person arrested for unauthorized entry to return the migrant to a port of entry. But the Senate’s concerns centered on language that made obtaining the person’s identifying information, including fingerprints, optional.

The current version now lets a judge or county magistrate order the migrant returned to a port of entry, but only after all identifying information is obtained and cross-referenced with state and federal databases.

In a joint statement issued Tuesday, Spiller and state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said the bill “charts a new path forward” for Texas. Perry filed an identical bill in the state Senate.

“These new procedures will ensure that every illegal crosser arrested is fingerprinted and receives a background check,” the lawmakers said. “After appearing before a magistrate or judge, the illegal border crosser will be taken to a port of entry and ordered to return to the foreign nation from which the person illegally entered from.”

Spiller told The Texas Newsroom Tuesday that the agreement addresses some of the concerns opponents of the measure raised during previous hearings and a heated debate on the House floor.

“The concern was that someone would do something and that someone would be deported that doesn’t need to be,” he said. “So, this has those safeguards.”

Spiller added that an undocumented immigrant arrested for the crime would need to agree to be sent back in order to have the charges dropped. If not, they would be prosecuted and ordered to return after serving whatever punishment is handed down. If the migrant didn’t comply with an order to return, they could be charged with a second-degree felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

House Bill 4 also prevents law enforcement from making arrests in medical facilities, schools, places of worship and SAFE-ready centers that treat victims of sexual assault. That language was also included to address some of the concerns raised during debate last month.

Those concessions aren’t likely to assuage other concerns from immigrant rights groups and others who say bills like HB 4 will lead to racial profiling and harassment of Texans of color. It’s unclear whether Spiller’s bill requires law enforcement to see a person try to enter Texas illegally before making an arrest. Without that provision, opponents argue, a police officer could potentially attempt an arrest of any undocumented immigrant in Texas.

“Any law that permits local law enforcement to investigate immigration offenses often leads to racial profiling and wrongful detention of both U.S. citizens and immigrants,” Marisa Limón Garza, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said in a statement Wednesday. “The re-filed HB 4 exacerbates the chances of these harms by removing fundamental due process protections, such as a formal arrest, trial, and access to an attorney.”

Immigration attorneys have also argued that any type of state-based immigration enforcement is likely unconstitutional as those duties usually belong to the federal government. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that sought to expand state powers on immigration enforcement. The court ruled that a provision of the law allowing law enforcement to arrest a person without a warrant and based on their immigration status violated federal law.

Rep. Spiller said his legislation would stand up to a court challenge.

“It is not in conflict with federal law, it is not preempted by federal law and Texas has the Constitutional right, duty and authority to protect its own borders,” he said.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Related Content