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New state law increasing sentences for human smuggling takes effect

Jesus Vasquez, originally from Honduras, lights candles at a makeshift memorial to the 53 people who died after being left in a truck trailer in a human smuggling operation, on June 30, 2022 outside San Antonio.
Jesus Vasquez, originally from Honduras, lights candles at a makeshift memorial to the 53 people who died after human smugglers left them in a truck trailer outside San Antonio on hot day in June 2022. A new state law increases the minimum sentence for those convicted of human smuggling. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

A state law that would increase the minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for people convicted of smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house goes into effect Tuesday.

The law was approved by the state Legislature last year during their third special session.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 in December. During the signing ceremony in Brownsville, Abbott said Texas needs to defend itself from drug cartels, blaming the Democratic President Joe Biden administration’s immigration policies.

“Biden’s deliberate inaction has left Texas to fend for itself,” Abbott said on Dec. 18.

Abbott has allocated over $10 billion since 2021 under the banner of Operation Lone Star to deter people from illegally crossing the border into Texas. During the legislative sessions last year, the governor pushed lawmakers to pass a series of immigration-related laws.

On Tuesday, immigrant rights advocates spoke out against the new law, saying that increasing the sentences for human smuggling will only increase the incarcerated population while not deterring the crime.

“This increase in policing and increase criminalization is going to further exacerbate the overcrowding of our our jails,” said David Stout, an El Paso County commissioner who joined the advocates during the news conference. “This is this is all based on the big lie that we have open borders. Gov. Abbott has utilized this lie to justify the expenditure of billions of dollars over the last number of years.”

Alan Lizarraga, communications manager for the Border Network for Human Rights, said the state has unnecessarily militarized the Texas-Mexico border to intercept immigrants that he said are not dangerous.

“If you were to take a picture of the border today, on one side you will find a family, women, children looking for safety, for refuge, for a better opportunity for a better life,” Lizarraga said. “And on the other side, you will find a border wall, with miles and miles of concertina wire, military vehicles, state troopers, and National Guard soldiers with weapons.”

SB 4 was one of three high-profile immigration-related bills that lawmakers approved last year and the governor signed into law in December.

Senate Bill 3 earmarks $1.54 billion in state money to continue the construction of barriers along the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border and allows the state to spend up to $40 million for state troopers to patrol Colony Ridge, a housing development near Houston that far-right publications claim is a magnet for undocumented immigrants.

The money would be added to at least $1.5 billion in contracts the state has issued since September 2021 to build about 40 miles of border barrier. As of August, Texas had erected 16 miles of steel bollard barriers in Starr, Cameron, Val Verde and Webb counties.

A different Senate Bill 4 — this one passed by lawmakers during the fourth special session last year — creates a state crime for illegally crossing the border from Mexico. The law has put Texas on a legal collision course with the federal government, which has sole jurisdiction to enforce immigration laws under federal law, which has been upheld by U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The new state crime is a Class B misdemeanor carrying a punishment of up to six months in jail. Repeat offenders could face a second-degree felony with a punishment of two to 20 years in prison.

The law allows a judge to drop the charges if a migrant agrees to return to Mexico.

The U.S. Department of Justice, El Paso County and immigrant rights advocacy groups have sued Texas to attempt to stop the law from going into effect. As of now, it is scheduled to go into effect on March 5.


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