The Texas Legislature has moved one step closer to passing a controversial immigration-enforcement bill that would create a new state offense for unauthorized entry into Texas.
The Texas Senate gave final approval to Senate Bill 4 late Thursday night — just days after the state's current special legislative session began.
This rapid pace was only made possible after the chamber voted to suspend standard rules of procedure and hold a committee hearing with little advance notice. The regular process would have allowed members of the public the opportunity to testify in favor or against a major proposal.
Instead, SB 4 was advanced and debated on the Senate floor just a few hours later.
The Texas Senate took the same steps on a separate bill, Senate Bill 3, that appropriates more than $1.5 billion for construction of border barriers on the state's southern border.
Senate Bill 4 creates a state crime for unauthorized entry into Texas from a foreign country, a class B misdemeanor on first offense. The charge would increase to a state felony for a subsequent offense. It also permits a judge or county magistrate to order the migrant returned to a port of entry, but only after all identifying information is obtained and cross-referenced with state and federal databases.
Opponents of the sweeping proposal say it conflicts with federal law and will lead to racial profiling.
Both SB 3 and SB 4 are efforts to address Gov. Abbott's order for lawmakers to address immigration and border security during the current special session of the Texas Legislature, the fourth Abbott has called since late May.
The illegal entry bill has been before lawmakers several times this year but has failed to make it to Abbott's desk due to infighting between Republicans over different versions of the proposals. Committee hearings over immigration-enforcement bills this year have featured dozens of witnesses for and against the measures. That was the normal process in a House State Affairs Committee Thursday morning, which heard an identical version of the bill. But shortly after that hearing adjourned, the Senate committee convened its own hearing after voting to circumvent the normal posting requirements.
Luis Figueroa, a former general counsel for a state senator and the current Legislative and Policy Director for Every Texan, a public policy advocacy organization, said he and a colleague were the only ones who testified.
"There was virtually no notice, we knew that they were coming onto the [Senate] floor at 3 pm," he said. "We just happened to hear them say ‘Suspend the rules.'"
The House committee advanced its bill but it's unclear which will make it to Abbott's desk. Whichever version it is, however, the measure will likely face a court challenge as immigration attorneys and other opponents have said it conflicts with federal law.
"I do think all these versions have all been unconstitutional, but I do think the removal provisions really put it over the top," Figueroa said.
Immigration attorneys have said state-based immigration enforcement is likely unconstitutional because of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down an Arizona law that sought to expand state powers on immigration enforcement. The court ruled that a provision of the law allowing law enforcement to arrest a person without a warrant and based on their immigration status violated federal law.
Lawmakers have also heard from local officials about the costs they will incur under the new legislation. Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith testified before the House committee that every county in Texas will shoulder the burden because the bill applies statewide.
"Every county jail in the state of Texas could be impacted by these unlawful presence arrestees," said Smith, who is also the president of the Sheriff's Association of Texas.
State Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, said last month his county determined it would need a new detention facility with 400 beds to have enough space to house immigrants prosecuted under the bill.
"[That's] at a cost of $162 million and $60 million annually, just to maintain the operations, and the detentions and the prosecution and the indigent defense and court costs," he said during a floor debate.
The quick action by the Texas Senate shifts the pressure to advance the bills to the Texas House. Its version of the border funding bill, House Bill 3, will be heard in a budget committee Friday and HB4 now moves to the full House, where Democrats will likely offer several amendments to the legislation.