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In recent years, the Texas Legislature has focused increasingly on immigration enforcement at the border and across the state. Texas’s Operation Lone Star (OLS) launched in 2021 and has deployed thousands of law enforcement personnel to the border, making use of state laws, such as trespassing and smuggling, to engage in immigration enforcement. OLS has radically shifted the way that state and local laws are applied to immigrants and border communities, has resulted in racial profiling, and has led to the deaths of dozens of people through high-speed chases and dangerous border barrier infrastructure. During the 3rd and 4th Special Sessions of the 2023 Legislative Session, the Legislature responded to the Governor’s call to expand Operation Lone Star and passed 3 anti-immigrant bills that will have a disproportionate impact on BIPOC immigrant survivors of gender-based violence.

Senate Bill 4 creates penalty enhancements for smuggling and operation of a stash house.

Effective Date: February 6, 2024

What it does: This bill adds a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for smuggling. The penalty is reduced to 5 years for someone accused of smuggling certain close family members and increased to 15 years if the crime is committed in an area where a disaster is declared. The bill does not significantly change the definition of smuggling under Texas law, which is so broad that, according to some analysts, even a person giving a family member or a friend a ride to a doctor’s appointment or to church could now face a 10-year sentence.

As far as we know, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) has not historically used this law to criminalize domestic violence and sexual assault advocates who provide transportation assistance to survivors so that they can attend a forensic exam or a protective order hearing, for example. That said, advocates are not protected from prosecution under this law.

Under Operation Lone Star, we’ve already seen changes in enforcement practice that have resulted in individuals being criminalized for helping undocumented immigrants access basic services.

Senate Bill 3 appropriates additional funding for border security.

Effective Date: March 5, 2024

What it does: This bill appropriates approximately $1.5 billion, in addition to the over $5 billion that was appropriated during the regular legislative session, for border barrier infrastructure and DPS over time.

Texas has erected unsafe barriers at its borders that have not discouraged people from desperately seeking safety, but instead caused the deaths of several migrants, including children.

Senate Bill 4 criminalizes unlawful entry into the U.S. under Texas law and authorizes Texas peace officers to carry out deportations.

Effective Date: March 5, 2024

What it does: This bill creates new crimes of unlawful entry into the U.S. and unlawful re-entry after removal/deportation under Texas law, allows magistrate judges – who are not experts in immigration law – to order a person’s removal to Mexico if an individual agrees under threat of criminal prosecution, and makes it a felony for someone to refuse to comply with that order to depart once a law enforcement officer has transported them to the border. There are limited exceptions for individuals with an approved asylum application or other form of lawful status, but adjudication of an immigration application can take years and the law prohibits abatement of prosecution (i.e. postponement) while an immigration application is being adjudicated. Finally, the bill provides immunity from civil suits and indemnification under state law for law enforcement and local government employees and requires local governments to shoulder the cost of such suits under federal law.

The newly created process to remove immigrants from the U.S. following the order of a magistrate judge conflicts with the right to seek asylum enshrined by Congress and under international law. This will result in asylum seekers being illegally prevented from applying for asylum and deported.

This law opens immigrant survivors across the state to investigation into their manner of entry anytime they interact with law enforcement, including when calling 911, pursuing charges against an abuser, or requesting a U visa for survivors of crime.

The section criminalizing re-entry after removal makes no express exceptions for people who were deported or denied entry into the U.S. and later obtain a visa or immigration benefit that allows them to enter or remain in the country. This means that survivors with approved applications for immigration relief could still face removal from the U.S. by Texas law enforcement if they had previously been removed or had departed under a removal order.

The law creates a state immigration system that fundamentally conflicts with federal immigration law. This is unconstitutional according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent and will likely result in costly and years-long litigation.

The cost burden on cities and counties where arrest, detention, and removal occur under this law, in addition to defense of individual officers facing civil liability for their actions, could force communities to direct their limited funds away from vital programs such as flood mitigation, affordable housing, and community safety.

Decades of federal deterrence-focused immigration policies and criminalization of immigrants living in the U.S. have failed to deter people from seeking safety in the U.S. Additionally, as Tahirih and Oxfam America found in 2022, such policies have also caused gender-based violence along the U.S. border to proliferate, as migrants and others are left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation in increasingly precarious conditions. Texas’s new immigration laws are based on the same flawed logic and will have the same effect. Tahirih’s 2019 survey of domestic violence and sexual assault advocates found that law enforcement entanglement with immigration enforcement created a climate of fear for immigrant survivors who were increasingly afraid that reporting their abuser to the police, requesting a protective order, or cooperating with a criminal case against their perpetrator could lead to their own deportation. Texas’s new legal framework makes this fear a reality and creates the legal infrastructure necessary to do so without regard to protections guaranteed to survivors by federal law.