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Advocates say new Texas border law could lead to more racial profiling

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

It's already a federal crime to enter the United States illegally from Mexico. Soon it's going to be a state crime in Texas under legislation Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed yesterday.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The measure means state and local police will be allowed to arrest people they believe are in the state illegally. Critics of the new law say it is unconstitutional and they worry it will encourage racial profiling.

MARTÍNEZ: Julian Aguilar from the Texas Newsroom is here to tell us about what this all means. So, Julian, what penalties are baked into this legislation?

JULIAN AGUILAR, BYLINE: So Senate Bill 4 makes it a Class B misdemeanor for people who cross the Rio Grande. And that's punishable up to six months in jail. That's a first offense. Any subsequent offense is a second-degree felony, and that jumps up to two to 20 years in prison. And this law is scheduled to take effect in early March.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so what's the argument for also making illegal crossings a state crime?

AGUILAR: So the biggest takeaway is Governor Abbott and his supporters say that they - Texas needs to do this because the federal government, the Biden administration, isn't enforcing the law on the books. You know, watching the governor's press conference when he did the bill signing, it's clear that the new law will empower state and local law enforcement near the border to crack down on unauthorized crossings, according to him. But the way it's written, it's a statewide bill, so this really applies across Texas. And advocates worry this is going to erode people's civil rights and specifically target mixed-status families. That's where at least one member is undocumented and the rest of the family are U.S. citizens.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the pushback that I keep hearing is that this law infringes on the federal government's power to regulate immigration. Is this designed to maybe trigger a lawsuit that would wind up in the Supreme Court?

AGUILAR: Right, correct. So Governor Abbott says President Biden's administration isn't doing enough to enforce existing immigration laws and that Texas has the sovereign right to do this. But it gets to the heart of a 2012 Supreme Court ruling over an Arizona immigration law, in which the court said local police didn't have the authority to arrest people solely based on their immigration status. You know, legal experts I talked to, they say issues like abortion, gun control, these are domestic issues. But immigration is a federal issue because it involves cooperations with other countries.

MARTÍNEZ: So how does all of this fit into Texas Republicans' other efforts to try and take control of immigration powers?

AGUILAR: Sure, it just adds to the list of what the state has done over the last few years, including Operation Lone Star, which is a state-based initiative that sent thousands of law enforcement to the border. You have the governor also ordering concertina wire to be strung up on the northern banks of the Rio Grande. He's deployed the National Guard down to the border. And, you know, he's also installed a floating barrier over a stretch of the Rio Grande. And that's tied up in the appellate court right now after he was sued to remove this barrier. He's also bused thousands of folks to so-called sanctuary cities that are led by Democrats. So this is just one more thing that the governor is doing to sort of challenge the federal government's authority.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Julian, what happens then if federal officials and state officials both want to make an arrest or prosecute the same person? Who gets priority?

AGUILAR: Sure, that's one of the ambiguities about Senate Bill 4. The state and federal officials work together under Operation Lone Star already. But because this is a new bill, we're going to have to wait and see how it plays out.

MARTÍNEZ: That's reporter Julian Aguilar from the Texas Newsroom. Julian, thanks a lot.

AGUILAR: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Julian Aguilar