AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Senate Committee on Border Security on Tuesday considered legislation that would create a new state-level offense for illegal immigration and increase criminal penalties for smugglers operating a “stash house.”
Senate Bill 11 by State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would create a Class A misdemeanor for people crossing into Texas from a foreign nation outside of an official port of entry, and a state jail felony for repeat offenders.
The Texas Department of Public Safety would be tasked with enforcing the law and detaining offenders inside facilities operated by Operation Lone Star, the state’s effort to secure the southern border independently of the federal government.
The bill exempts people who have been granted asylum or other protection to reside in the United States by the federal government, such as under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. However, the law would not accept status under Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents as a defense to prosecution.
DPS Director Steven McCraw said under current law, in the absence of a state-level offense, state troopers will detain illegal immigrants and refer them to Border Patrol. He worries many of those people are then released and lost before their court appearance.
“For the most part, our understanding is they will receive a notice to appear – some people call it a notice to disappear,” McCraw said.
Senate Bill 4 by State Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, would establish a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for human smuggling, operating a “stash house,” or evading arrest.
“The intent of this legislation is to go after those who are profiting and endangering the lives of innocent people,” Flores said, asserting the current penalties are “too low” to effectively deter smugglers.
“We keep hearing almost every other week about a stash house with 30, 40 immigrants being held,” Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said.
Some senators voiced concerns the bill may be too broad and harm those who assist or unknowingly transport people.
“I don’t want the church bus driver to find himself in a smuggling circumstance because he is, of his own good faith, picking up people to go to church on Sunday morning,” committee chair Brian Birdwell said.
Flores reiterated the intent of the law is to target human smugglers. Family members transporting or housing their undocumented relatives would not be subject to the 10-year mandatory minimum, but would still face five years in prison under the law.
Both Senate Bill 4 and Senate Bill 11 are in direct response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s calls for increased border security measures. Both are expected to pass the Senate with bipartisan support.
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