How Texas lawmakers are trying to deter illegal immigration and secure the border

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As the Texas Legislature weighs immigration bills aimed at beefing up border security and migrants continue arriving at the Texas-Mexico border in large numbers, Kristin Etter, incoming directory of policy and legal services at the Texas Immigration Law Council, and state Reps. Eddie Morales, D-Eagle Pass, and Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, sat down with Matthew Watkins, The Texas Tribune’s managing editor of news and politics, for a conversation about the border.

Discussing the three immigration bills that the Texas House passed last week, Jetton said House Bill 6 — which would appropriate $1.5 billion to fund Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to build more border barriers — would help funnel personnel to areas where migrants frequently cross the border.

Morales said ranchers and landowners along the border are “fed up” with trash, discarded clothing and damages left by migrants on their property.

Etter said that Senate Bill 4, a measure that would increase the minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for people convicted of smuggling immigrants, is too broad and could wrongly ensnare people such as Uber drivers and young people simply driving friends who might be undocumented with no intention of smuggling people.

“It’s a very broad statute, and it’s not going to penalize the people that I think we have in our mind we’re intending to penalize,” Etter said.

Morales, one of a few Democrats who voted for the bill, said: “I wanted to send a clear message. If you participate in that sort of conduct, there will be repercussions. We need to be tough on that criminal activity.”

The third bill, House Bill 4, would make unauthorized entry into Texas a state crime, allowing state police to arrest violators and return migrants to a port of entry and order them to return to Mexico. Federal judges have ruled that enforcing immigration laws is a federal responsibility.

Etter called HB 4 “one of the most dangerous and unconstitutional” bills ever proposed in Texas because it would allow Texas law enforcement to detain anyone they suspect being undocumented anywhere in the state. An officer could then arrest any migrant who admits to crossing the border between official ports of entry.

“The point of the legislation is that it is now going to be a crime if you enter Texas at a place other than a port of entry,” Etter said. “How do you know that person has not entered through a port of entry unless you visually observe it?”

Morales, who voted against the bill, said his Republican House colleagues were pressured by the party’s far right wing to pass the bill. Jetton, who voted for the bill, disagreed, saying that people in his district and across the state believe illegal entry is an important issue to address.

Under Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, Texas has already allocated $10 billion on border enforcement efforts. Jetton was asked what could be done so the state can ease up on border spending. He said Texas would like to cooperate more with the federal government on securing the border, but there’s an unwillingness from the federal government to do so.

“I would love for that $10 billion, and all the future dollars, to go towards more state functions, public education, public health — there’s a lot of things that we need to address in this state,” Jetton said. “But with what’s happening with our southern border, and the lack of action from Congress, this is the direction that the state of Texas has to continue to go in to make sure we’re securing our communities and keeping them safe.”

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