Texas House Follows Senate in Passing Two Strong Immigration Enforcement Bills
FAIR Take | November 2023
It’s only been a week since Texas Governor Greg Abbott convened the fourth special session of the state legislature and the House and Senate have already passed two major immigration bills. Senate Bills (SB) 3 and 4 were both top priorities for the governor. He expended considerable political capital to summon the multiple debate sessions needed to cross the finish line. Abbott said both proposals that would “better enhance the safety of all Texans by increasing funding for strategic border barriers and mirroring the federal immigration laws President Joe Biden refuses to enforce.”
The first bill, SB 3, appropriates $1.54 billion to fund “border security operations and the construction, operation, and maintenance of border barrier infrastructure.” Of that amount, the bill authorizes $40 million to be used by the Texas Department of Public Safety for operational expenses, including overtime allowances and costs associated with increased law enforcement presence in the Colony Ridge development in Liberty County. The bill also prohibits using the money to acquire property through the use of eminent domain or building a barrier between Texas and another U.S. state.
During the House floor debate on SB 3, one amendment was adopted. That amendment, offered by Representative Tracy King (D-Uvalde), directed some of the bill’s appropriations towards grants for local governments to defray the costs of prosecuting illegal aliens under the new legislation. The House then passed SB 3 by a vote of 84-59. However, since the House-passed version of SB 3 is now different from the Senate bill, the bill will return to the Senate before it can be sent to Governor Abbott.
The second bill, SB 4, creates a state crime of illegal immigration in Texas. It prohibits the entry of any alien from a foreign nation into Texas except at an official port of entry. Under the bill, aliens charged with illegal entry have several defenses. These include: that the alien was granted lawful presence, asylum, or DACA by the federal government, or that the alien’s conduct did not violate the federal statute prohibiting illegal entry (8 USC 1325). The first offense is classified as a misdemeanor; a second or subsequent offense is a felony.
SB 4 was the more contentious of the two bills in the House. ”Senate Bill 4 is the broadest, most invasive piece of legislation to ever potentially challenge the very nature of our federal and state power. The power to enforce immigration is unquestionably, exclusively a federal power,” remarked Representative Victoria Neave Criado (D-Dallas), who chairs the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
House sponsor Representative David Spiller, (R-Jacksboro) defended the bill, saying, “It’s a landmark bill that allows Texas to protect Texans and to send illegal immigrants back, and to prosecute and incarcerate those that refuse to leave.”
After eight hours and dozens of amendments, Republicans adopted a motion to end debate, at which point the House passed SB 4 by a vote of 83-61 without any changes. Some of the amendments considered included: prohibiting the enforcement of the bill on college campuses, lessening the possible period of jail time under the bill, and excluding minor children and victims of trafficking and sexual assault.
Terrell County Sheriff Thad Cleveland said the bill will assist Texas law enforcement in their effort to combat transnational criminal activity occurring throughout the state as a result of the Biden administration’s open-border policies.
On the other hand, the Mexican government’s reaction was less enthusiastic, adding that it “categorically rejects any measure that allows state or local authorities to detain and return nationals or foreigners to Mexican territory.” Furthermore, the government of Mexico said it had a right to defend the estimated 10 million people of Mexican origin.
SB 4 will now head to Governor Abbott for his signature. Governor Abbott already publicly indicated he will sign the bill when it reaches his desk, saying, “Texas is doing more than any state has ever done in the history of America to address Joe Biden’s open border policies.”
Once signed, it is expected that SB 4 will be immediately challenged in court. In fact, upon the bill’s passage, Oni Blair, Executive Director of the Texas ACLU, called SB 4 one of the most radical anti-immigrant bills ever passed by any state and added, “Texans across the state have resoundingly opposed these bills from the beginning and we’re not backing down. If Governor Abbott signs S.B. 4 into law, we will sue.”
Likewise, SB 4 has been considered by some to be a challenge to the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona v United States (Arizona SB 1070), which upheld the federal government’s complete authority over immigration enforcement. Senate sponsor Charles Perry offered, “While I agree we are testing and pushing envelopes, the state has every right to protect its citizens, and this nation has every right to expect Texas to do that when called to do it.”