Abbott to sign law allowing Texas police to arrest immigrants


Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign a measure Monday that allows Texas law enforcement officials to arrest immigrants entering the state from Mexico without authorization, setting the stage for a possible showdown with the federal government over immigration law enforcement powers.

Abbott pushed the legislation, which passed in a special session of the Republican-dominated state Legislature last month despite strong objections from Democrats, immigrant rights groups and Hispanic organizations who argued the measure violated the Constitution. of the United States and would encourage racial discrimination. .

Some border sheriffs have also opposed the legislation, expressing concern that it could quickly overwhelm local jails and courts if even a fraction of those who cross the border every day were arrested. On just one section of Texas' 1,254-mile border with Mexico, around the cities of Eagle Pass and Del Rio, federal agents encountered 38,000 migrants in October.

The surge in migrants has become a political liability for President Biden, who has been criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for the record number of arrivals at the southern border under his watch.

By signing the law, Abbott, a Republican in his third term, would take his most direct step yet to challenge the Biden administration over federal immigration policy, which is currently being negotiated between the president and Congress.

The Texas law would take effect in March and would most likely go through the courts in the coming months, just as the presidential and congressional campaigns heat up. Legal experts have said the legislation could create the opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to review a 2012 case, Arizona v. United States, which was narrowly decided in favor of the federal government's power to set immigration policy. .

Over the past two years, Abbott has steadily ramped up a multibillion-dollar statewide border enforcement program, known as Operation Lone Star, deploying thousands of National Guard troops and state police on a mission to indefinitely patrol the border.

Under the program, state police have arrested thousands of immigrants accused of misdemeanor criminal trespassing. But these arrests could only be carried out on private land and with the consent of the owner. And the effort has not deterred illegal crossings, which have continued at high levels.

The new law makes it a misdemeanor to cross into Texas from Mexico anywhere other than through legal ports of entry. It would also allow magistrates to order migrants to return to Mexico or face legal proceedings if they do not agree to go. A second offense would be a felony.

Crossing between ports of entry is already a crime under federal law. But federal agents often do not process immigrants until they commit a second offense, admitting many first-time crossers into the country, especially women and children.

As a result, Abbott and other Texas Republicans argue that federal law is not being enforced as they believe it should be. The state's new law would not allow immigrants seeking asylum to avoid arrest or processing unless their asylum request has already been granted, a process that can take years.

Abbott has said the new state law is necessary to allow Texas to do more to reduce the number of people crossing into the state illegally. He has taken other steps to draw attention to the surge at the border, including installing razor wire along the Rio Grande and busing tens of thousands of migrants from Texas border cities to Democrat-run cities like New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago.

On Monday, federal immigration officials closed international rail bridges in Eagle Pass and El Paso so border agents could be reassigned to handle the large number of migrants arriving there.

Opponents have vowed to file a lawsuit to stop the law from taking effect.

“Our view is that Texas does not have the authority to police and prosecute immigration crimes,” said David Donatti, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “We will go to federal court so they can never do it.”

The governor on Monday was also expected to sign into law $1.5 billion in additional funding for the state's construction of a border barrier.

Lawmakers did not provide funding to support additional arrests or processing of migrants, nor did they estimate the associated costs. To process trespassing arrests under Operation Lone Star, Texas has already built dedicated processing areas and reserved space in state prisons to act as jails for immigrants detained on trespassing charges.

Ryan Urrutia, patrol commander for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, said the sheriff did not support the legislation for fear it would sow distrust of authorities in the largely Hispanic community. Urrutia said the office had projected it could add about $6 million in annual costs to El Paso County, although he cautioned: “Nobody knows.”

State or local police officers, such as sheriffs, Texas Rangers, or city police officers, could make an arrest under the law up to two years after the alleged crime. That raises the question of how police officers far from the border could determine whether someone crossed illegally without asking for immigration documents, a tactic that critics fear could lead to racial profiling.

Rep. David Spiller, the Texas Republican who passed the bill in the State House, said the new law would not lead to those types of investigations. “I think most of the enforcement will be done at the border, where officers see people crossing,” Spiller said in an interview on the “Y'All-itics” podcast. He added that he believed the legislation “did not conflict” with the 2012 Supreme Court case.

But before the bill passed with majority Republican support, a Republican senator warned that the legislation would, in fact, conflict with the Constitution, which he said gave the federal government authority over law enforcement. of immigration.

“We are setting a terrible precedent by overriding our obedience and fidelity to our Constitution,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, a conservative Republican from south Dallas, in a speech on the state Senate floor. “The fact that President Biden does not obey his oath of office does not require us to violate ours.”

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