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Texas House advances bill to increase penalties for human smugglers and operators of stash houses

 A Texas DPS vehicle sits at the border fence in El Paso on May 11, 2023
Julian Aguilar / The Texas Newsroom
A Texas DPS vehicle sits at the border fence in El Paso on May 11, 2023

The Texas House of Representatives gave tentative approval on Wednesday to a state-based immigration bill that would increase the penalties for human smugglers and operators of stash houses. It also approved a separate measure to appropriate $1.5 billion for construction of barriers on the state’s southern border.

The chamber is scheduled to debate and tentatively pass another controversial item on Wednesday: legislation that would make unauthorized entry a state crime and empower local and state police officers to order migrants back to Mexico.

The trio of bills are part of a package of laws Gov. Greg Abbott ordered lawmakers to consider during the current special session of the Texas Legislature, the third since lawmakers ended the regular session in May.

The smuggling and stash house bill, Senate Bill 4, by state Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, increases penalties for human smugglers and operators of stash houses and applies statewide. It makes human smuggling a third-degree felony that carries with it a 10-year minimum prison sentence. The smuggling sentence could be reduced to five years if the alleged smuggler cooperates with law enforcement on other investigations, or if the person being smuggled was related to the smuggler. The stash house provision increases the penalty to a five- or 10-year prison term.

The bill passed after a 90 to 57 vote and faces one more procedural vote before heading to the governor’s desk.

Abbott and Republicans argue the new laws are necessary because of President Biden’s border policies, which they said have led to record-levels of unauthorized migration since he took office in 2021.

“This bill sends a strong message of zero tolerance against human smuggling and provides law enforcement with the necessary tools to target and to prosecute these criminals,” state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, told House members as he laid out the bill on Wednesday.

Democrats tried several times to amend the legislation, specifically seeking to reduce the mandatory penalties for teenagers or to allow judges discretion when doling out punishment. All those efforts failed.

SB 4 currently allows for the smuggling penalty to be reduced if the person charged and convicted can show the migrant being transported was a relative through the third degree of consanguinity (related by blood), or through marriage. State Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, offered an amendment to include more family members under that provision, but that effort also failed.

Opposition to SB 4

Democrats have argued the bill could ensnare family members, non-profit workers or even rideshare drivers who could potentially be charged with smuggling just for driving someone around or transporting a migrant to church or other places.

“A priest could be charged for driving a vanload of folks who don’t have papers to mass, is that correct,” state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, asked Guillen. Guillen said one would have to meet the provisions of the bill to be charged, including knowingly concealing or harboring the person. He added that smuggling is already a crime, and the legislation only enhances the penalties.

“They could be charged today, they could have been charged 10 years ago,” he said.

“Right but what you are changing is the 10-year mandatory minimum, that’s our point,” Neave Criado responded.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said the county will look in to joining whatever litigation is likely to follow. He said that bills like SB 4 can also create unintended consequences for volunteers who work with asylum seekers.

  Migrants attempt to cross the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas in July 2023
Eric Gay/Associated Press
Migrants attempt to cross the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas in July 2023

“It's just going to bring about more racial profiling,” he said. “All of the people that work in the [non-governmental organizations] here in El Paso don't ask people what their documentation or status is. They could be considered, under that bill, as breaking the law.”

Opponents have decried the package of laws as extreme measures that do little more than please extremists within the party. They add that House Bill 4, which would create a new state offense for unauthorized entry, would place a target on many Texans who live on the border, and erode the community’s trust with law enforcement and strain local resources.

“Regardless of immigration status, families residing within our borders fall within our jurisdiction and deserve the respect and the protection from law enforcement,” state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, said during a press conference at the Capitol Wednesday morning. “[Law enforcement officers] do not have the time to focus on checking on whether folks are here with papers or not when they are trying to deal with real crimes and issues facing our state.”

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who served five terms as a state representative before being elected to the U.S. Congress in 2012, said the package of bills debated Wednesday show how extreme Texas has become since he served at the state Capitol.

“We have had conservative governments in the past in Texas. And there's a reason why no Republican governor or any governor or speaker of the past has pursued this, because it will lead to racial profiling,” he told The Texas Newsroom. “It will lead to people being forced to prove their citizenship on the streets of our cities throughout the state.”

$1.5 billion in border-barrier funding

After the contentious debate on SB 4, the chamber quickly passed House Bill 6, which funds about $1.2 billion in money for construction-ready projects in the border counties of Webb, Starr, Val Verde and Maverick. The remaining funds would go toward land acquisitions and easements for future projects, bill author state Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, told the House Committee on Appropriations earlier this week.

On Wednesday, Democrats tried to amend the legislation to prohibit the money from being used for additional buoys similar to those currently installed in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass. The amendment failed.

Democrats were successful, however, in attaching an amendment stating the governor’s office cannot enter into contracts with known antisemites, white supremacists or other hate groups to construct or maintain border barriers. That provision was part of the ongoing reaction to reporting from the Texas Tribune that far-right Texas Republican groups met with Nick Fuentes, a well-known antisemite who has professed his admiration for Adolf Hitler.

Jetton also specified that the money will not be used to acquire land through eminent domain, which forces landowners to sell their property to the government, or to build barriers between Texas and any other U.S. state.

This story will be updated following the votes on the other proposals.

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

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Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom