Governor Greg Abbott
Governor Greg Abbott addresses members of the media during a news conference VERONICA CARDENAS/Reuters

The Texas Legislature approved on Tuesday night a bill that would empower the state to arrest or deport migrants who are suspected of entering or re-entering the state illegally. It also allows judges to order migrants to return the country they illegally crossed from rather than seeking prosecution.

Moreover, the bill, introduced by Republicans and passed along party lines, allows state agencies to transport the migrants to ports of entry to ensure the measure is effective.

Under SB4, a first-time offender could be convicted of a misdemeanor and be punished by up to 180 days behind bars. The penalty would jump to a felony punishable by up to two years in prison if the person has repeatedly entered the country illegally, according to the bill, which only needs the approval of Governor Gregg Abbott, who asked lawmakers to pass it in the first place.

According to ABC News, the bill sparked fears among immigrant rights advocates about the possibility it will lead to widespread racial profiling and circumvention of protections asylum seekers have under constitutional law. The bill doesn't provide funding or requirement to train officers to enforce these new laws.

The bill is another attempt by lawmakers to empower Texas law enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws, despite rulings by federal courts that the federal government has sole jurisdiction over immigration matters.

State Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, who sponsored the bill, said it doesn't preempt federal law and only enforces laws already in place. "There is nothing unfair about ordering someone back from where they came if they arrived here illegally," Spiller said.

State Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, said she's concerned that the bill could lead to officers mistakenly arresting U.S. citizens who live on the border if they don't have proof of citizenship handy.

Eagle Pass, Rio Grande, Border
Migrants walk along the Rio Grande past recently installed buoys in Eagle Pass on July 29 Verónica G. Cárdenas/The Texas Tribune

According to the Houston Chronicle, Democrats, who are a minority in both chambers, echoed the concern. "Democrats introduced more than 50 amendments aimed at limiting the bill's scope. After the first dozen or so went down on party-line votes, Republicans moved to skip over the remaining amendments and vote on the bill," reported the outlet.

Spiller said that scenario would seem unlikely because a U.S. citizen hasn't been wrongfully removed from the country. "It's a humane, logical and efficient approach to a problem created and fostered by the Biden administration's failure and refusal to secure our border," Spiller said.

However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the research arm of the U.S. Congress, has found that immigration agents have "arrested 674, detained 121, and removed 70 potential U.S. citizens" between 2015 and 2020, according to a July 2021 report.

Governor Abbott is also seeking an additional $1.54 billion bill to fund the building of a wall in the southern border. The proposal was also passed on Tuesday but had a small tweak that sent it back to the Senate.

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