Border

Children may be harmed the most by Texas’ illegal entry bill, advocates warn

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hasn’t signed the bill yet, which enables local and state law enforcement officers to arrest anyone who’s entered the United States illegally.

Young unaccompanied migrants, from ages 3 to 9, watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, in 2021.
Dario Lopez-Mills/AP / Pool AP
Young unaccompanied migrants, from ages 3 to 9, watch television inside a playpen at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley, in Donna, Texas, in 2021.

Child and family advocates across Texas say the so-called illegal entry bill could harm children and cause serious lasting effects.

Under the bill, local and state law enforcement could arrest anyone who's entered the U.S. unauthorized. Governor Gregg Abbott hasn't yet signed Senate Bill 4 into law but has said he plans to.

During a press conference organized by the group Children at Risk on Thursday, advocates pointed out that the bill doesn't exempt children.

"The power of peace officers to arrest children even if they prove to later be U.S. citizens, could lead to significant disruption in children's lives and education," said Linda Corchado, director of Children's Immigration Network at Children at Risk. "Alarmingly, the bill allows for children to be expelled to Mexico under its return order provision, increasing their vulnerability to dangers such as sex trafficking and violence."

In North Texas, nearly 38 percent of children live in a mixed-status family, which means at least one parent is foreign-born. In Houston, nearly 44 percent of children are in mixed-status families.

Jenifer Wolf-Williams, executive director of HOME, or Humanitarian Outreach for Migrant Emotional Health, is concerned about the trauma this legislation could inflict on children. She said kids need to know their parents will make it home safely at the end of the workday or that they won't be targeted while dropping them of at school.

"There is zero mystery regarding psychological impact on affected children," Wolf-Williams said. "Decades of research have repeatedly shown that separating, detaining or deporting families causes long-term psychological and physical harm."

Some of the long-term effects, she added, could include damage to a child's cognitive, emotional and social functions.

Shalaina Abioye, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative in North Texas, called the bill "inhumane and discriminatory" and said it could affect individuals who have legal protection.

Many of the people Abioye serves are already distrustful of people in positions of power. This bill, she said, would force people to hide and could break the trust between law enforcement and communities of color.

"This may cause immigrants to not call law enforcement for emergencies or public safety needs because of their increased fear of detainment or unlawful unrest unrelated to that emergency or public safety need," Abioye said.

Human rights and immigrant advocates say they're stepping up efforts to help clients and others who might be affected after the bill is signed into law. Abioye said everyone should know their rights and have a plan should a loved one be detained.

"If anyone is asked about their immigration status by law enforcement, they should not answer those questions, including where they are born, how they entered the U.S., if they are a citizen or if they are a permanent resident," Abioye said. "They have the right to remain silent."

Some worry about the potential economic impact of the bill, especially in a state with a significant immigrant workforce. In North Texas alone, more than 575,000 workers don't have legal status, according to Juan Carlos Cerda, State Director of the American Business Immigration Coalition.

Statewide, 27 percent of the construction industry is undocumented while 33 percent of agricultural workers don't have legal status.

"These facts mean that a police officer has no way of knowing if a construction worker on a roof has crossed the border without inspection, other than by asking that construction worker or by assuming that the construction worker crossed the border without legal status," Cerda said.