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New law gives Texas more power to criminalize undocumented migrants in the state

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Who has the power to regulate immigration? The Texas Legislature has passed a bill to give more power to state and local police to arrest people who illegally across the border from Mexico. The latest immigration effort from state leadership and Governor Greg Abbott also dedicates more than $1.4 billion for border barriers and law enforcement. Julian Aguilar of The Texas Newsroom reports.

JULIAN AGUILAR, BYLINE: Texas has already arrested thousands of migrants who crossed the Rio Grande under current state trespassing laws, but that isn't enough for Governor Abbott. Under his direction, lawmakers recently passed Senate Bill 4, which creates a new state crime for unauthorized entry from a foreign nation. The charges range from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on the migrant's criminal record. The author of the bill, Republican state Senator Charles Perry, said the legislation is necessary to protect U.S. citizens from the federal government's failures on border security and what he calls America's dangerously open borders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES PERRY: Cartel enterprise, terrorist infiltration, fentanyl crises, human smuggling where people are treated as commodities. This is a response for Texas to do what it needs to do to protect the citizens under an imminent and undeniable threat.

AGUILAR: But immigrant rights advocates say the law promotes racial profiling. They fear the law could target just about anyone but especially people of color and families of mixed immigration status.

MARISA LIMON GARZA: This is really going to potentially rip families apart. This is just dangerous for health and well-being.

AGUILAR: Marisa Limon Garza directs the El Paso-based Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. She says the law has already sent waves of fear across immigrant communities, even though it's still unclear how police will enforce it locally.

LIMON GARZA: It's very difficult to quantify what a behavior looks like for people that are impacted by this, now knowing that any traffic stop, any whatever is going to pass as probable cause can lead to this arrest, detaining of them and then, ultimately, deportation.

AGUILAR: It's not just the arrest component of the new law that has opponents sounding the alarm. The law applies statewide and targets all people suspected of entering the state illegally. So a person could be questioned about their immigration status hundreds of miles away from the border. The bill also permits a magistrate judge to order any migrant to return to their country via a port of entry, regardless of whether they are from Mexico. Dallas Democratic state Representative Victoria Neave Criado chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

VICTORIA NEAVE CRIADO: You just imagine the real conundrum that a lot of our local law enforcement are going to have to deal with in terms of determining, one, who they're going to return, where they're going to return them to, and who's going to pay the fee? You know, are you going to pay for a flight?

AGUILAR: Legal groups are preparing to challenge the law in federal court. They'll argue the federal government, not individual states, has jurisdiction over immigration matters. But Republicans are hopeful that should SB 4 reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the conservative majority will reconsider a 2012 decision that solidified federal control over immigration, similar to the way it gutted a landmark abortion ruling last year. But immigration law experts in Texas and across the country say immigration is different from abortion, health care or safety, which the top court has ruled the states have the right to regulate. David Donatti is with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

DAVID DONATTI: The state of Texas can pass its own laws about marketing tobacco products, for example, about how to regulate Medicaid, about traffic laws. Immigration controls, deportation absolutely are outside of that window of what the states are usually free to legislate.

AGUILAR: The new law is awaiting Governor Abbott's signature and, should it survive a legal challenge, will go into effect in about 90 days from now.

For NPR News, I'm Julian Aguilar in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: December 1, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier description of this story referred to an unrelated story. This story is about legislative efforts in Texas to give state and local law enforcement more power to arrest migrants who cross the southern border illegally.
Julián Aguilar