Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott on Monday signed one of the toughest state immigration laws in modern American history. He authorized state officials to arrest and deport immigrants suspected of crossing the border into Mexico illegally.
Law, known as SB4, gives Texas law enforcement officers new, statewide authority to stop, arrest and jail immigrants on illegal entry charges. It also allows state judges to issue de facto deportation orders against suspected violators of the law, although it is unclear how this provision will be enforced.
Passed by the Texas legislature earlier this year, SB4 is an unusual attempt by the state to inject itself into immigration and border enforcement. It would certainly spark a high-stakes legal and political showdown with civil rights groups and a possible Biden administration.
“The goal of Senate Bill 4 is to prevent illegal entry into Texas,” Abbott said at a border signing ceremony in Brownsville. “Senate Bill 4 is now law in the state of Texas.”
When will SB4 go into effect?
The law is set to go into effect in March 2024, although that could change depending on the outcome of lawsuits expected to be filed against it.
Before it was signed into law, SB4 drew fierce criticism from Democratic lawmakers, the Mexican government and advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which vowed to file lawsuits challenging its legality.
Asked about SB4, White House spokesman Angelo Fernandez Hernandez said, “Generally speaking, the federal government — not individual states — is responsible for deciding how and when to remove noncitizens who violate immigration laws.” The Justice Department, which is charged with filing any legal action against Texas, declined to comment.
The law is also Texas’ latest attempt to challenge President Biden, a Democrat, on immigration. Under Abbott’s direction, Texas has sent tens of thousands of immigrants to Chicago, New York and other Democratic-led cities. He has instructed National Guard units and state troopers to repel immigrants with razor wire, floating barriers and trespassing arrests.
Stephen Yale-Lohr, a Cornell University professor and immigration expert, called SB4 “unprecedented.” The Texas law is more expansive in nature than SB 1070, a controversial 2010 Arizona law that penalized unauthorized immigrants in a variety of ways, including empowering state police to detain those believed to be in the country illegally. The Supreme Court partially struck down the Arizona law in 2012, saying states could not undermine federal immigration law.
“This is the most anti-immigration bill I’ve ever seen,” Yale-Lohr said of SB4.
What does SB4 do?
Entering the United States outside of an official port of entry is already a federal crime, although most immigration violations are treated as civil cases in the immigration court system. SB4 would make illegal immigration a state crime, ranging from a misdemeanor to a felony.
While Texas troopers have already arrested some immigrant adults on state trespassing charges, the effort required the consent of private property owners. There will be no new law.
Under SB4, illegal entry into Texas from Mexico would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000. Illegal re-entry into Texas is a felony punishable by up to 2, 10, or 20 years in prison, depending on whether the particular immigrant was previously deported or convicted of certain crimes.
SB4 includes a provision barring state officials from arresting immigrants in certain locations, including schools, places of worship and health care facilities.
The law would also allow Texas magistrates to order immigrants suspected of new illegal entry or re-entry crimes to be returned to Mexico in lieu of their prosecution. Violators of those orders may be charged with a second-degree felony.
It is unclear how Texas will implement these de facto deportation orders, as only the federal government has the facilities, agencies and international agreements necessary to deport immigrants abroad. Mexico’s government has said it rejects Texas’ attempts to return migrants to its territory.
Abbott and other supporters of SB4 have argued the law is needed to curb illegal border crossings and what they see as a lackluster effort by the Biden administration to deal with the crisis. More than 2 million immigrants were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the southern border in both fiscal years 2022 and 2023, the highest level on record.
But opponents of the measure have denounced SB4 as unnecessarily punitive, saying the law could lead to racial profiling and instill fear not only among newcomers but in immigrant communities across the state. They also argued that it would overwhelm state prisons and authorities, diverting resources from efforts to apprehend serious criminals.