Advocates want Biden to rein in Texas’ immigration crackdown

Immigration advocates and congressional members are calling on the Biden administration to rein in Texas’ governor, who could soon give peace officers anywhere in the state the authority to arrest people they believe have entered the country illegally.

“The Biden administration needs to take far more active and aggressive action to push back on this law,” said Dylan Corbett, founding executive director of HOPE Border Institute, a social justice group rooted in Roman Catholicism.

The proposed law, SB4, was approved by the Texas Legislature last month. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has said he’ll sign the measure, which would make illegal entry a state crime.

Peace officers — widely defined under Texas’ Code of Criminal Procedure — include police officers, arson investigators, municipal park patrol personnel, Texas Medical Board investigators and more. Under the proposed law, they could arrest people who they have probable cause to believe entered the U.S. illegally at the Texas-Mexico border. The arrests can be made in regions far from the state border with Mexico. The peace officers could charge these people with committing a state crime, a Class B misdemeanor. The accused would be jailed or detained until they go before a state magistrate and, if convicted, could be ordered by the magistrate to leave the state. But the person could agree to leave on their own, avoiding prosecution.

The immigration advocates said SB4 has many legal and constitutional problems, including that immigration enforcement is largely the jurisdiction of the federal government.

The legislation does not specify or require training of peace officers on what would be proper documentation for people to present when they are asked to show they entered the country legally. It does put in place state procedures for adjudicating immigration and asylum claims, said Jennifer Babaie, director of advocacy and legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas.

“This bill is going to force our communities to live in the shadows … in fear that walking out of your house onto the wrong corner of the street, driving your car at the wrong time, on the wrong day, dropping your children off somewhere, is going to get you in trouble,” Babaie said.

The advocates said it is unclear whether the measure would be applied retroactively.

Thomas Saenz, president of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that if it becomes law, state court judges who have no training on applying federal immigration law would be enforcing it, which would lead to racial profiling.

“It is so clearly unconstitutional,” Saenz told NBC News.

“If we allow every state, as Texas is attempting, to have its own deportation system of judges deciding who goes and who stays and enforcement of those determinations, we could cease to be a single country. We would become 50 different countries with different immigration systems,” Saenz said.

Fear of backlash, violence

Fear has led Katia Elisea Escobar, 22, to flee Texas. She said she would be affected by the law because she is undocumented.

“The passing of these anti-immigrant bills have made Texas a hostile state for me and I could not continue to reside in this state; that would put me at a greater risk of detention and deportation and family separation,” Escobar said.

She said she wants to work in the medical field, but couldn’t accomplish that goal without “constantly looking over my shoulder and fearing I will be stripped away from all I know at any moment.”

Florida implemented similar immigration laws this year causing many people to exit the state, including citizens with family members who don’t have legal residency status. Having seen what happened in Florida, “I knew it would only be a matter of time before I would be displaced,” Escobar said.

On Monday, 12 of Texas’ 13 Democratic congressional members urged the Department of Justice in a letter to more aggressively prosecute federal law violations that they say state officials are committing through Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, his immgration enforcement program. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose district is on the border, did not sign.

“With Governor Abbott poised to sign SB4 into law this week, there is concern that the the greater latitude for law enforcement to detain individuals suspected of being foreign nationals granted by this law will lead to greater violence against migrants and targeting of Latino Texans,” the congressional members wrote in the letter.

They said violations have included arresting immigrants on trespassing charges, installing razor wire on the border, preventing migrants from getting medical care and, in an incident caught on video, a Texas National Guardsman getting in a confrontation with a migrant stuck in barbed wire.

Abbott has repeatedly blamed increases in arrivals of migrants, many of whom request asylum, on President Joe Biden and his immigration policies and has been busing migrants from Texas to Democratic states and cities to make his point.

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