Show-me-your-papers legislation is back in style for Republican lawmakers. But it’s 2023, not 2010. And this time it is Texas at the forefront of anti-immigrant politics, not Arizona.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, Texas lawmakers passed sweeping legislation that will allow the state to expel people suspected of having entered the country illegally. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praised the measure as the “strongest border security bill ever passed in Texas.”
It would be interesting to hear just how he measures this strength.
If it is strong polling with GOP primary voters in Texas, then we agree. But if the measure is effectiveness in addressing illegal immigration, honoring constitutional rights, showing fiscal restraint or recognizing the boundaries between state and federal authority, then this legislation is abysmal. It tramples civil liberties and adds $1.54 billion in vague spending for “border security operations,” which is code for “black hole.”
Civil liberties concerns
Senate Bill 4 creates a new state crime, “illegal entry,” a misdemeanor with a sentence of up to six months in jail. A judge could offer a defendant the option of voluntarily returning to Mexico in place of prosecution. Those convicted of illegal entry would be ordered to return to Mexico. Failure to do so could result in stiff penalties, including a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
It’s unclear, though, just how law enforcement would determine whether someone entered the country illegally beyond seeing that person cross the U.S.-Mexico border. This has raised vociferous concerns about potential racial profiling and the trampling of civil liberties.
Other concerns abound. Many migrants are not from Mexico, so it’s not clear why they would be forced to return to a country that is not home or if Mexico would accept them.
Texas Republicans often decry big government, at least when applied to Democratic presidential administrations and policies such as Medicaid expansion, but this legislation represents an enormous expansion of state government. For this reason, a bipartisan group of 30 former immigration judges also issued a statement on SB 4. The measure “is not lawful,” they said. “Immigration is plainly a federal function.”
SB 4 has prompted comparisons with Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, the so-called show-me-your papers law that opened the door to racial profiling. It is, no doubt, a legislative descendent. Time moves forward, but border politics often remain the same.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down much of SB 1070. While the high court maintained the show-me-your-papers provision, it invalidated three other aspects of the law for trampling federal authority. Of significance to Texas, this included a clause that would have allowed law enforcement to arrest a person without a warrant if that person were believed to have committed a crime that made them subject to deportation.
But that was a different court, with Justice Anthony Kennedy serving as a key vote.
“I think in Texas, Republican leadership … they are banking on creating a federal challenge in the Supreme Court that could likely support the overturning of Arizona v. U.S,” said Jon Taylor, a political science professor with University of Texas at San Antonio.
Big spending, small results
Because they are not actually fiscal conservatives, Texas Republicans have agreed to spend another $1.54 billion on “border security operations.” This would include an ongoing wall and $40 million to the Department of Public Safety to investigate anti-immigrant conspiracy theories directed at Colony Ridge, a sprawling development northeast of Houston that is home to many migrants.
Texas Republicans have already committed $10 billion to Operation Lone Star, so this will push spending north of $11 billion.
Texas voters should ask just what they are getting in return. If the measure is reducing illegal immigration, Operation Lone Star has been of little to no consequence.
When Operation Lone Star was launched in March 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 173,277 land border encounters. In October, there were 240,988 land border encounters. Those are figures for the entire Southwest border. But Texas numbers have followed suit, particularly in the Del Rio sector where there were 38,211 encounters in October, ranking second in the Southwest.
In an August press release, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office celebrated Operation Lone Star, crediting it with 420,800 apprehensions and 33,600 arrests. But let’s remember that many of those apprehensions would likely have happened without Operation Lone Star since migrants are presenting themselves to federal authorities for asylum.
Still, having spent $4.5 billion through July, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, Operation Lone Star has cost Texans more than $10,000 per apprehension and more than $130,000 per arrest.
But that’s not the full bill.
Since 2005, when Gov. Rick Perry launched Operation Linebacker, an attempt to stop terrorists from crossing the border, Texas has committed about $13 billion on various border security efforts. This also includes Operation Secure Texas, which placed 250 DPS troopers on the border at a cost of $800 million, mostly in 2016 and 2017.
“I know it is priority No. 1 reflected in all the public opinion polls and has been for quite a while. And yet they keep doubling down on a failing policy,” former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican, told us. “There’s no world in which the efficacy of this program would warrant more spending. … It’s great for the border economy, I assume, but it’s not doing much for stopping illegal immigration.”
And this is because immigration is a federal responsibility.
One day, Texans will look back on the billions spent on border security and wonder just what they received in return. Those funds could have been used for roads, broadband infrastructure or public education. Instead, we have orange buoys, razor wire and now a law made in the image of Arizona’s SB 1070.
It is a rare feat to have such questionable and ineffective policies reflected so clearly through wasteful spending, but Texas leadership has proven up to the challenge. When faced with a great political opportunity, they will spare no expense.
San Antonio Express-News