In a contentious legislative session on November 14, the Texas House of Representatives approved a controversial and stringent immigration bill that would create new state penalties for people who enter the state illegally and grant state and local law enforcement agencies the authority to arrest and deport migrants.
The legislation, Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), which now awaits the signature of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, has sparked concerns over potential lawsuits and strained relations with Mexico.
SB 4, considered during the fourth round of a special legislative session ordered by Abbott, introduces two new state crimes for migrants entering or re-entering Texas illegally, carrying penalties of up to two years in prison.
One provision in particular that has sparked concern grants local and state law enforcement the authority to arrest migrants suspected of unlawful entry, with judges having the option to order their return to the country they crossed from rather than pursuing prosecution.
Law enforcement officers are authorized under the bill to escort illegal migrants back to their port of entry for them to return to their home country.
Those who refuse to comply with the law could be charged with a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The bill has subsequently led to sharp criticisms from progressive activists and constitutional rights experts.
State Representative Jolanda Jones, a Democrat, labeled the bill as “racist” before the vote. “It’s not all right to be racist. I will stop pulling the race card when you stop being racist,” she declared.
Immigrant rights advocates have expressed concerns that the bill may lead to widespread racial profiling and circumvent constitutional and international protections for asylum seekers.
Notably, SB 4 lacks provisions for funding or mandatory training for officers on immigration law, despite authorizing them to make swift decisions on a person’s immigration status.
Aron Thorn, a senior staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, also warned of potential lawsuits and an international dispute with Mexico over the forced return of migrants, regardless of their legal status.
He suggested the bill may even challenge a 2012 Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States, which upheld federal authority over immigration enforcement.
Critics argue that SB 4 could lead to the separation of parents and children if the former are arrested under the new state crimes.
Additionally, concerns arise over potential racial profiling, as the bill only applies to undocumented immigrants, leading law enforcement officials to use race as probable cause for apprehension.
“We know our history is replete with examples of race being used as a proxy for immigration status. We live in Texas, our history books are full of it, and I think people are right to be concerned, specifically because there is no possible way to violate this without being an alien, which means they have to have some sort of idea that you are a noncitizen and race is used as a proxy for that,” Thorn said.
The Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on the specific legislation but emphasized that the removal of noncitizens is the federal government’s responsibility, asserting that state actions conflicting with federal law may be invalid under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.
“Generally speaking, the federal government — not individual states — is charged with determining how and when to remove noncitizens for violating immigration laws. State actions that conflict with federal law are invalid under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution,” the spokesperson said.
Furthermore, during a Senate floor vote last week, Republican State Senator Brian Birdwell expressed concerns about the bill challenging federal jurisdiction over immigration enforcement.
“Members, that is why all my attempts to carry this legislation and the bill language therein had the proper federal authority responsible for disposition and deportation of those that we detain,” Birdwell said. “President Biden’s failure to obey his oath does not compel us to violate ours. Instead, it compels our federal representatives to constrain him and for the electorate to remove him in the coming year.”
SB 4’s passage in the Texas House is part of Abbott’s push for legislation addressing border security.
With Abbott indicating his intention to sign SB 4, the controversial legislation appears poised to become law.