Several bills that would create an exceptionally harsh system of deterrence and punishment for immigrants and asylum seekers in need of protection are being considered by the Texas state legislature. If passed, these bills would lead to criminalization, imprisonment, or expulsion back to dangerous conditions that survivors of violence originally fled when coming to the U.S. seeking safety.
House Bill 20
House Bill 20, the most sweeping and dangerous of these bills, has three major components to deter and punish immigrants. First, it would establish a new “Border Protection Unit” (BPU) under the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) with broad powers to arrest and detain people in any part of the state who are suspected of crossing the border outside of a port of entry. The BPU Chief would be appointed by and only respond to the governor, not the Director of DPS. The BPU Chief would also be given extensive powers to deputize anyone without a felony conviction to conduct arrests. This could lead to the creation of deputized vigilante forces from paramilitary groups with the power to enforce immigration law. Terrifyingly, it would also grant the BPU officers’ immunity “from criminal and civil liability” for their actions.
HB 20 would also make it a felony for migrants to trespass on private property while crossing the border with a minimum fine of $10,000. Other bills under consideration in the house and the senate would make illegal entry a felony offense in Texas, potentially enforceable statewide, and punishable by up to life in prison.
Lastly, HB 20 would codify a state-level version of Title 42 allowing officials to stop and remove anyone entering Texas by land without a medical inspection, whether through a port of entry or not.
House Bill 7
A second bill under consideration in the House, HB 7, would establish a separate “border protection” court system with vague powers to prosecute “illegal entry” and “other border related issues.” As immigrant rights groups have already observed under Operation Lone Star, this would likely lead to violations of due process rights and harsh punishments for both immigrants and U.S. citizens.
The combination of these bills would create a powerful state system of deterrence, surveillance, and punishment for immigrants in Texas with very little oversight or accountability. This would have disastrous impacts on immigrant survivors of gender-based and other violence and immigrant communities of color.
“These bills propose to codify into law many state and local policies that are designed to exclude, punish and deter, sacrificing justice in favor of enforcement, pushing safety farther out of reach for some of the most vulnerable people across the state,” said Katharina Dechert, Tahirih Houston Policy and Advocacy Manager.
These bills will disproportionately affect Black and brown migrants who are at a higher risk of being detained, arrested, and expelled to their home countries. As described in our report “Surviving Deterrence,” deterrence policies like the health inspection law under consideration place immigrant survivors, often fleeing life-threatening persecution, in harm’s way by significantly increasing their risk of experiencing gender-based violence along our southern border.
Immigrants stuck at the border waiting to cross are forced to rely on precarious housing conditions that make them more susceptible to various forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual assault, human trafficking, and domestic violence. They also become targets of violence by organized crime networks, who surveil and target migrant camps and shelters along the southern border, increasing the risks for human trafficking and cartel activity that these bills claim they will prevent.
For immigrants already in Texas, the creation of a paramilitary force with the power to operate with immunity across the entire state will dramatically increase the climate of fear in immigrant communities. Immigrant survivors in need of assistance will be afraid to access lifesaving help, such as going to the doctor, contacting a social services organization like Tahirih, or reaching out to law enforcement. The end result of these bills become law will be that Texas will become a more hostile environment for all, especially immigrants that are afraid to report instances of trafficking, abuse, and exploitation.
The increased criminal penalties for survivors seeking safety in the U.S. also makes it harder for people seeking asylum to access humanitarian relief. A felony charge for immigrant survivors seeking safety could make it nearly impossible for an immigrant fleeing violence to receive asylum or other forms of legal protection. It’s also much harder to find an attorney and win an immigration case from jail and this law will lead to significant increases in the number of incarcerated migrants. Without status, survivors are more vulnerable to continued violence and exploitation at the hands of traffickers, employers, partners, and other abusers.
Tahirih urges the Texas state legislature to vote against these damaging bills that will result in further harm to immigrant communities, particularly immigrant survivors of gender-based violence.
To learn more about these proposed laws and what you can do to help stop their passage, we recommend the following resources: