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New Texas Bill Allows Police to Arrest Undocumented Migrants

After Gov. Greg Abbott signs the legislation, state and local police will be allowed to enforce a new state crime, illegal entry from a foreign nation, and allows state judges to order migrants back to the country of entry.

Asylum seekers cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States
Asylum seekers cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States on Sept. 30, 2023, in Eagle Pass, Texas.
(John Moore/Getty Images/TNS)
Texas state and local police likely will enforce immigration laws soon, and state judges could authorize ordering undocumented migrants to return to Mexico under a sweeping border security bill that now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

Following hours of debate Tuesday — and a Republican tactic that cut the floor session short — the House approved both bills on party-line votes. A separate bill that adds billions in funding for the construction and maintenance of a state border wall heads back to the Senate for final approval.

Senate Bill 4, the sweeping border security bill that was carried by Jacksboro GOP Rep. David Spiller, passed 83-61. Senate Bill 3, which adds money for border wall funding, cleared the chamber 84-59.

Abbott has said he will sign both bills the House approved.

In introducing his bill, Spiller said it would be a solution to the “crisis” at the U.S.-Mexico border and the migrants who enter the state without proper legal documentation.

“We still know that the (President Joe) Biden administration has failed and refused to enforce federal immigration laws and secure the border,” Spiller said while introducing his bill.

The legislation creates a new state crime of illegal entry from a foreign nation, making it a Class B misdemeanor. It authorizes state and local police to arrest migrants who are in Texas illegally. It also allows state judges to order migrants back to the foreign nation from which they entered the state — which would presumably be Mexico.

The proposal is similar to the bill Spiller carried in the previous special session; however, it includes various changes. The previous version allowed for state and local police officers to order the migrants to return to Mexico. The current proposal also does not allow for arrests to take place at schools, places of worship or facilities in the state that provide services to people who are survivors of sexual violence.

But legal experts, including former federal immigration judges, along with Democrats in the Texas Capitol have said the bill is unconstitutional.

“Texas Republicans proudly passed legislation that will allow Greg Abbott’s Department of Public Safety to imprison Black and Brown migrants for simply existing in our state,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said.

Tuesday’s floor debate was neither as heated nor as long as last month’s, which included a more than three-hour delay and confrontation between lawmakers.

But Republicans cut the debate short with a procedural tactic that forced a vote of the bill. Lawmakers engaged in almost six hours of debate, and Democrats proposed 14 of what were at least four dozen amendments scheduled to be voted on.

The GOP-led chamber rejected all amendments.

“Our voices are being silenced,” said Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, when speaking against the debate ending prematurely. “The voices of millions of our constituents that we represent are being silenced.”

Concerns About Constitutionality

Tuesday’s passage fulfills one of Abbott’s goals for the fourth special session of 2023, which was for lawmakers to send him legislation that addresses border security and for a bill that allows for public funds to be used for private school tuition — known as school choice.

The previous special session only saw one of three immigration-related bills reach the governor’s desk. The other bills died following a clash between House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and disagreements over Spiller’s bill.

On the first day of the current special session, Spiller and Lubbock GOP Sen. Charles Perry announced they had reached an agreement on the legislation and filed identical bills. The Senate passed the bill last week — despite a surprising objection from GOP Sen. Brian Birdwell of Granbury, who said the bill is unconstitutional.

Democrats on Tuesday raised similar concerns Tuesday that the proposal violates federal law and would also lead to discrimination against Hispanic and Latino Texans.

“This bill is hypocritical. It’s un-American,” said freshman Rep. Jolanda Jones, D-Houston. “I will stop pulling the race card when you stop being racist.”

Some also questioned if Spiller was trying to challenge the ruling from the 2012 Arizona vs. United States case, where the Supreme Court ruled that states have limits at enforcing federal immigration laws.

Spiller disagreed.

“We have steered clear of what Arizona did,” Spiller said.

At one point, Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, asked Spiller what the damage would be in adding an amendment that would not allow for undocumented migrants to be charged with a crime if Mexico declines to accept them. The bill allows for undocumented migrants who refuse to return to be charged with a felony.

Spiller refused to accept the amendment. He said that adding the amendment would delay the bill’s passage. “If I waste my time and know there’s going to be a delay, I’m going to have trouble sleeping,” Spiller said.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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