AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A Texas House committee advanced a controversial border security bill Thursday that would enable state law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law, a power reserved for federal authorities.
House Bill 4 would make it a state crime for non-citizens to cross into the United States illegally. It’s a power currently reserved for federal law enforcement agents like border patrol, but the legislation would give any state peace officer the ability to arrest someone who enters Texas illegally or order them to return to the country of origin.
The legislation’s author — Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro — says the legislation is necessary because the federal government is not doing enough to secure the border.
“This bill is not about if someone’s here illegally,” Spiller said. “It’s if they crossed into our state from a foreign nation at some illegal place—a place other than a legal port of entry.”
HB 4 also outlines protections for Texas law enforcement officers from personally getting sued for arresting or deporting people—unless the officer violates someone’s rights in the process.
Some of the biggest criticism of the legislation is that it would likely violate the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution since immigration enforcement is a power reserved solely for federal authorities. Federal courts have repeatedly held that arresting and deporting people is something that states cannot do.
Concerns over possible racial profiling
Another major concern presented in the committee towards the bill was the impact it could have on profiling amongst non-white U.S. citizens. The legislation does not offer geographic constraints, meaning these arrests could hypothetically happen anywhere in Texas.
“This bill gives so much power to police officers to profile [immigrants], to profile the people who doesn’t look like a white American,” said Alice Lee, a member of Asian Texans for Justice, in her testimony.
Lee expressed concern for immigrants not fluent in English, saying she worries they could be subject to arrests or accidental deportation if a law enforcement officer suspects that person is in Texas illegally.
“If they have been somehow, in some instance, been called by police and asked for their status, [and] they couldn’t explain it, are they going to be facing jail time and deportation,” Lee asked the committee.
Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, questioned Spiller about the logistics of how these arrests would be executed if it becomes law — since the legislation doesn’t require officers to physically see the illegal entry happen in order to take action.
“There would have to be some proof and some evidence somewhere,” Spiller said. “I mean, you can’t just prosecute folks without evidence. You would have to have that, and the burden of proof on that to prove each and every element of the offense is on the state of Texas.”
“We have to do we have to treat people fairly. We have to treat them right,” Spiller said. “Is there a cost to that? Yeah, there is. But I think that’s important.”
How much would this cost?
It’s unclear how much HB 4 would impact the state fiscally. Committee members repeatedly asked Spiller to estimate the costs to the state to which he could not provide an answer.
“How much will this bill cost,” State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, asked Spiller.
“I don’t know,” said Spiller in response.
While claiming to not know the specific costs of the bill, Spiller mentioned how this bill will incur more costs than previous versions of the bill in the third special session.
Skeptics also raised concerns about the overcrowding of border community jails. During testimony, Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw noted how border jails were pushed to their brink after Texas started an initiative allowing DPS agents to arrest and jail migrants for trespassing on private property in 2021.
“We would envision that if we’re going to increase the number of arrests for a charge of illegal entry that there’s certainly going to be a greater need for jail space,” McCraw said.
Larry Smith, president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, echoed the same sentiment while testifying, mentioning how “every [Texas] county jail can be affected” by the implementation of this bill.
The House State Affairs Committee passed HB 4 along party lines in an 8-4 vote. It will now be eligible for lawmakers to debate on the House floor.