Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign two right-wing immigration bills, setting off a likely constitutional battle over a new law that allows state and local police to arrest anyone suspected of crossing the border between Undocumented Texas and Mexico.
SB4, one of the toughest anti-immigration laws in U.S. history, makes it a state crime to cross into Texas from another country without documentation.
State judges are now required to order a migrant to return to their home country in lieu of prosecution. If the migrant refuses the judge’s order, he or she risks a felony charge and up to 20 years in prison. SB4 also gives Texas officers the ability to arrest anyone they believe has entered the state illegally, a power that immigrant advocates and Democrats have called racist.
“It’s un-American,” said Texas state Rep. Jolanda Jones, a Democrat. “It’s going to victimize people on the southern border, people of Latino descent.”
Jones told the Guardian that SB4 is “state-sanctioned” racism against Latinos, noting that the new law contains no recourse for Americans unjustly detained, arrested or deported by sheriffs or state police.
“It will separate children from their parents,” Jones said.
The controversial state law is the latest anti-immigration idea from Texas Republicans. In June, Abbott bused migrants to Democratic-run cities without adequate coordination. That same month, Texas launched Operation Lone Star, a multimillion-dollar initiative that placed barbed wire and thousands of troops on the Texas-Mexico border.
This week, the Republican governor is also expected to sign SB3, which allocates $1.5 billion in taxes for Texas border security measures. The new law’s hefty price tag “includes paying for expenses and additional overtime costs” for state troopers to patrol Colony Ridge, a housing development near Houston.
Colony Ridge became a priority of the Abbott administration after the Daily Wire, a far-right news outlet, called the development a “magnet for illegal immigrants.”
Jones blasted the new increase in border spending as financially irresponsible.
“This funding could and should be used to increase funding for public schools, public hospitals, neighborhood clinics, affordable housing, mental health facilities to name a few,” Jones told the Guardian .
Both anti-immigration laws were widely criticized by Texas Democrats, but SB4 also drew condemnation from bipartisan legal groups and the Mexican government.
A group of more than two dozen former immigration judges signed a statement this week calling SB 4 unconstitutional. Among the signatories were judges appointed by Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Our personal policies may vary, but we have dedicated our careers to the equal and fair administration of federal immigration law,” the statement said, adding that SB4 should “offend those who cherish our constitutional protections.”
The expulsion of non-citizens of the United States falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Immigration law is strictly the responsibility of the federal government and not individual states, in part because immigration is a major part of United States foreign relations.
“Mexico, in particular, has an important and central relationship in how the federal government controls our border,” said Emma Winger, deputy legal director of the American Immigration Council. “What Texas is saying is it’s going to force people, many of whom may not be Mexican citizens, to return to Mexico.”
In a statement released Nov. 15, Mexico’s foreign secretary said the Mexican government “categorically rejects” SB4. Abbott’s signing sets the stage for a showdown between Texas law enforcement officials and Mexico’s federal government.
Texas Republicans know that SB4 will likely draw legal challenges from the Biden administration, immigration advocates, or both.
“Part of the reason for passing this law is to send a message to the Biden administration that Texas will go as far as it dares, and it doesn’t matter if it loses in court, it’s making a statement policy.” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell University.
Yale-Loehr said a legal challenge to SB4 would likely succeed, but court battles can take several years. Meanwhile, Texas Republicans hope the threat of expulsion will discourage migrants from crossing the southern border.
Immigration advocates like Yale-Loehr and Winger are particularly concerned about the new law’s temporary effect on asylum seekers. Under federal law, all people entering the United States have one year to apply for asylum, regardless of their legal status. Texas’ new law means undocumented immigrants in the process of seeking asylum could be removed from the United States, even if their cases are still pending.
“These are people who have come to Border Patrol agents hoping to get legal protection here,” Winger said. “Texas is now saying these people can be prosecuted, imprisoned, and then forcibly removed from the country.”