Texas legislators approve bill allowing police to arrest people who cross the border illegally

Migrants talk to Texas National Guard and Texas state troopers along the banks of the Rio Grande in El Paso in December 2022. The Texas House tentatively passed bills that would appropriate more money to build border barriers and make illegally crossing the border into Texas a state crime. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

The Texas House of Representatives approved immigration bills Tuesday that would appropriate more than $1.5 billion for additional border barriers and make illegally crossing the Texas-Mexico border a state crime.

Senate Bill 3 would allocate $1.54 billion for border barriers and to pay for state troopers to patrol Colony Ridge, a housing development near Houston that far-right publications claim is a magnet for undocumented immigrants.

During Tuesday’s debate in the House, lawmakers adopted an amendment to SB 3 introduced by state Rep. Tracy King, D-Uvalde, that would allow some of the money to be used to help local police and governments enforce the new state crime proposed in Senate Bill 4.

SB 4 would make it a state misdemeanor to illegally cross the border from Mexico into Texas, empower Texas peace officers to arrest undocumented immigrants and require that a state judge order the person to leave the U.S. to Mexico in lieu of prosecution.

“If we’re going to make them do this, then we need to help them pay for it,” King said.

SB 3, which passed on a 84-59 vote, goes back to the Senate, which previously approved the bill, so it can vote on the amended version.

SB 4 passed on an 83-61 vote. The Senate already passed the bill last week so it now heads to the governor’s desk.

Under SB 4, the charge could be enhanced to a felony if the migrant is accused of other crimes or refuses to comply with a judge’s order to return to Mexico. The bill also allows immigrants to present any evidence that they are in the country legally during the prosecution. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor charge is a year in jail; for a felony the penalty is two to 20 years in prison.

Democrats introduced dozens of amendments to the bill, including language that would exclude immigrant children from prosecution, along with victims of trafficking and sexual assault. Other amendments said that if Mexico doesn’t accept a person from a particular country, the immigrant could use that as a defense from prosecution.

None of the amendments were adopted.

Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, sponsor of SB 4, urged lawmakers to vote against the amendments because his goal was “to get this bill passed, and get it passed cleanly, and get it on the governor’s desk” as soon as possible.

Republicans adopted a motion to end the debate after eight hours on Tuesday, over objections from Democrats.

State Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, asked why Republicans silenced Democrats during debate on a bill that would affect Texans statewide.

“Why are we elected if you don’t even have the cojones” to defend this piece of legislation, Criado said in Spanglish.

Republican lawmakers are attempting to pass the proposals in a fourth special session of the year after they failed to approve similar bills in previous special sessions.

During the debate on SB 3, Democrats raised concerns about the amount of money being spent on the border when the state could be funding things such as hospitals, health care access or updating state prison infrastructure. State Rep. John Bryant, D-Dallas, said that with the money proposed for border barriers and Colony Ridge, the state could build 15 hospitals, at $100 million each, in rural parts of Texas.

“I could go down a list of things that [money] can be spent on, we’re $2 billion currently short of the money we need just to pay for the current level of special education being borne by our independent school districts,” Bryant said. “This is a huge amount of money. We shouldn’t spend it unless we know that there is data that indicates it will impede illegal entries into Texas.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, asked the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, why the proposal sets aside $40 million for more law enforcement presence in Colony Ridge, a rural development in Liberty County.

“Can you state what that concern is that merits this appropriation?” Turner said.

Jetton declined.

“I’m not going to try to debate or litigate whether or not Colony Ridge is safe or unsafe,” Jetton said.

As the House debated SB 4, Spiller said the proposal is meant to target immigrants who recently crossed the Rio Grande into Texas rather than people who have been in the state a long time. He said because misdemeanors have a two-year statute of limitations, undocumented immigrants who crossed the border more than two years ago wouldn’t be affected if the bill passes.

“When the representation to the general public is, the Texas House is about to pass something that’s going to round up someone’s grandmother that’s been here all their life, that is completely false,” Spiller said.

State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, introduced two amendments to the bill that would require police and prosecutors to find out if an immigrant arrested under the new law is in the country legally before the case is prosecuted. Both failed.

“I would suggest to you that the individual who has followed the rules, who has been arrested, who has been jailed, they would say one minute of their liberty being taken when they have followed the rules is too much,” Moody said.

In a landmark 2012 case, Arizona v U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that local police didn’t have the authority to arrest someone solely based on their immigration status and that responsibility falls to the federal government. That case stemmed from a 2010 Arizona law known as SB 1070, which made it a state crime for legal immigrants not to carry their immigration papers and required police officers to investigate the immigration status of any person they come into contact with.

Democrats said during Tuesday’s debate that regardless of how Republicans attempt to make SB 4 constitutional, the Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot enforce immigration laws on their own.

“We all know why we’re here,” Neave Criado said. “SB 4 intends to challenge the decade-long holding of Arizona versus United States, given the new makeup of the United States Supreme Court, which we have seen has already overturned [the] 50-year long precedent of Roe v. Wade.”

Spiller denied that’s his intent.

“People have asked me that: Are you trying to overturn Arizona v. U.S.? And my answer is no,” Spiller said.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/11/14/texas-house-border-wall-crossing-crime-bill/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.