Starting Tuesday, a new state law will take effect, increasing the minimum sentence for individuals convicted of smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house. Under this law, the minimum sentence will be raised from two years to 10 years. This measure aims to address the issue of illegal immigration and the criminal activities associated with it. By imposing stricter penalties, the law intends to deter individuals from engaging in such activities and send a strong message that these actions will not be tolerated.
The state Legislature approved the law during their third special session last year.
Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 in December, emphasizing the need for Texas to protect itself against drug cartels. During the signing ceremony held in Brownsville, Abbott attributed this necessity to the immigration policies of the Democratic President Joe Biden administration.
On December 18, Abbott criticized Biden for his intentional lack of action, stating that it has left Texas to handle its own challenges without assistance.
Since 2021, Abbott has dedicated more than $10 billion to Operation Lone Star in an effort to prevent unauthorized border crossings into Texas. Throughout the previous legislative sessions, the governor urged lawmakers to enact a range of immigration-focused legislation.
According to immigrant rights advocates, the newly implemented law, which aims to increase sentences for human smuggling, will only result in a larger incarcerated population without effectively deterring the crime.
“This increase in policing and the subsequent increase in criminalization will only worsen the already overcrowded conditions in our jails,” expressed David Stout, an El Paso County commissioner, as he stood alongside the advocates during the news conference. “It is disheartening to see that all of this is rooted in the false narrative of open borders. Governor Abbott has relied on this falsehood to justify spending billions of dollars in recent years.”
According to Alan Lizarraga, the communications manager for the Border Network for Human Rights, the Texas-Mexico border has been needlessly militarized by the state in order to apprehend immigrants who he believes pose no threat.
Lizarraga describes the current state of the border as a stark contrast between two sides. On one side, there are families, women, and children seeking safety, refuge, and better opportunities for a brighter future. On the other side, a border wall stretches for miles, accompanied by concertina wire, military vehicles, state troopers, and National Guard soldiers armed with weapons.
One of the high-profile immigration-related bills that lawmakers approved last year and the governor signed into law in December was SB 4.
Senate Bill 3 designates a budget of $1.54 billion from the state to further the construction of barriers along the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border. Additionally, it enables the state to allocate up to $40 million for state troopers to patrol Colony Ridge, a housing development near Houston that some far-right publications assert attracts undocumented immigrants.
Texas has already issued contracts worth at least $1.5 billion since September 2021 to construct approximately 40 miles of border barrier. Up until August, the state had successfully erected 16 miles of steel bollard barriers in Starr, Cameron, Val Verde, and Webb counties. This additional funding will further contribute to the ongoing efforts to strengthen border security.
During the fourth special session last year, lawmakers passed another Senate Bill 4 that establishes a state offense for unlawfully crossing the Mexican border. This legislation has set Texas on a collision course with the federal government, as the enforcement of immigration laws falls under the sole jurisdiction of the federal authorities, a principle affirmed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
The state has introduced a new law that categorizes the crime as a Class B misdemeanor, which can result in a jail term of up to six months. In case of repeat offenses, the punishment is upgraded to a second-degree felony, carrying a prison sentence of two to 20 years.
If a migrant agrees to return to Mexico, the judge has the authority to dismiss the charges, as per the law.
The U.S. Department of Justice, along with El Paso County and immigrant rights advocacy groups, has filed a lawsuit against Texas in an effort to prevent the law from being implemented. Currently, the law is set to take effect on March 5th.
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