EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Several civil rights groups are making a last-minute pitch to derail state legislation calling for more jail time for migrant smugglers and setting up a Texas border enforcement unit.
A state Senate committee on Thursday was to take up HB 7 and HB 800. The former would create a state Border Protection Unit (BPU) while the latter mandates a 10-year prison sentence for migrant smuggling and calls for two to 10-year prison sentences for migrant “stash house” operators.
Proponents say Texas must step in to deal with collateral effects of federal policies that gave rise to an unprecedented wave of illegal migration. Critics say the proposed state laws usurp federal authority and are a waste of taxpayer money.
“Empowering state officers to decide who unlawfully crosses the border with Mexico conflicts with federal immigration law, which grants that power only to federal officers,” said Fatima Menendez, southwest regional counsel at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Nicholas Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said enhanced penalties for migrant-related state offenses will drag down innocents.
“These offenses are very broad under Texas law,” he said at a Wednesday teleconference, raising the specter of private citizens giving directions to migrants crossing their land being subjected to arrest. House Bill 800 will waste millions of taxpayer dollars, “swell our prisons and shackle our judges by not considering people’s individual circumstances or be allowed to show mercy.”
The mandatory penalties could empower prosecutors to “coerce” guilty pleas for lesser offenses from individuals fearful of facing major jail time, he added.
Kristin Etter, an attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, worries about first-time offenders’ lives being wrecked by the proposed laws. She said her organization already has seen the effects of other state laws on migrants.
“We’ve represented people charged primarily with criminal trespassing. Most of our clients are economic migrants and asylum seekers coming to work who have never been arrested,” she said. “These are extremely vulnerable victims not just of cartels but also of militia groups and private citizens who’ve held our clients at gunpoint […] and assaulted them with canines and vehicles in an effort to round them up and turn them over” to authorities.
She also went to bat for first-time offenders who may be ignorant of Texas laws.
“A significant number of our clients accused of migrant smuggling are teenagers and young adults who have been lured on social media to pick up people and give them a ride,” she said. “Most of our clients have never been in trouble before, have no connection to any cartel and are literally giving people a ride in their cars as passengers similar to an Uber…”