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Closer look at the bill that would allow Texas peace officers to return migrants to Southern border
Closer look at the bill that would allow Texas peace officers to return migrants to Southern border
Closer look at the bill that would allow Texas peace officers to return migrants to Southern border

Published on: 11/03/2023


SAN ANTONIO (WOAI/KABB) — Texas lawmakers have just four days left to complete a special session in Austin, but several important items remain on their to-do list.

Border security is among the key matters still left to tackle. A bill that would raise penalties for human smuggling and stash houses is now heading to Gov. Greg Abbott for approval.

However, progress has been slower on other measures, like funding for additional border wall installations and new criminal charges for illegal entry into Texas.

A few weeks ago, WOAI/KABB first reported on the possibility of peace officers having the authority to return migrants to a port of entry at the Southern border under House Bill 4. Many logistical details were uncertain at that time.

We’re working out the logistics about how we identify those folks, and do some of those things to make sure we know who it is, and make sure if we have a re-entry problem that we can deal with that," said Rep. David Spiller, who filed the bill, said in a mid-October House committee meeting.

There has been a lot of speculation regarding the legal challenges this law might face, after a 2012 Supreme Court ruling determined states cannot create their own immigration law.

State officials and immigration advocacy groups continue to disagree on how this bill would hold up.

"It's carefully tailored to avoid intruding on federal immigration enforcement authority, while providing law enforcement with an important new tool to deter unlawful entry into the state of Texas," said State Senator Brian Birdwell, who is sponsoring this measure in the Senate.

The Senate's Border Security committee discussed the bill this week after it was passed in the House.

"The federal government has the exclusive authority to carry out immigration enforcement," said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy director for the American Immigration Council. "It's just not up to the states, unless the federal government gives express permission."

The new version of HB 4 allows officers to collect identifying information, photographs and even fingerprints to cross-check with local authorities to determine someone's immigration status.

There are also new limits to where they can carry out these removals. New language says migrants cannot be removed from public or private schools, churches or places of worship, or hospitals.

Experts have also raised concerns that sending people back to Mexico may strain international relations.

"You can push somebody through the port of entry into Mexico as a voluntary return, if they're a Mexican national, but if they're not a Mexican national, you have to coordinate with their countries to fly them in," said Ari Jimenez, a retired Homeland Security Special Agent in Charge.

Lawmakers also raised questions about how much this bill would cost local and county governments if their officers were making several trips back and forth to the border.

Officials clarified in a committee hearing that it would primarily be used in border counties, where officers witnessed people crossing the Rio Grande or scaling the border wall. But even in some of those places, it's a long drive to a port of entry.

Birdwell said the responsibility would fall on the state. DPS troopers would be the ones transporting people in the U.S. illegally back to a port of entry.

A fiscal analysis of the bill states that there could be increased demand in border county courts because of this bill and "that could require additional funding to support indigent defense in those counties and to create one or more county courts-at-law."

Reichlin-Melnick said that even with the added provisions, the state government has yet to address the fact that under federal law, migrants have the right to seek asylum.

"Under HB 4, it seems that a person could even be criminally charged for refusing to go back to Mexico, even though they have that right under federal law," Reichlin-Melnick said. "And so far, Texas hasn't offered a very good explanation for what would happen in that circumstance, if a migrant said, 'I don't want to go back to Mexico, because I want to seek asylum here.'"

With just a few days left, it remains uncertain whether lawmakers will reach a consensus on this bill.

It's been another point of contention for House Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. They each released posts on X, criticizing what the other legislative body was doing for border security.

The special session is set to end on November 7. Abbott previously said he would continue calling special sessions until a school voucher or education savings account bill passed.

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