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How SB 4 threatens the well-being of immigrant families in Texas

By Thomas J. Rachko Jr. and Johanna Cajina

Texas’ latest piece of anti-immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 4, demonstrates yet another state-level policy with likely harmful effects on immigrant well-being.

SB 4, set to take effect in March 2024 after being signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, makes “illegal entry and illegal reentry” a crime in Texas. It gives local law enforcement the power to arrest migrants and allows judges to issue orders to remove migrants from the United States, a function that typically falls under the authority of the federal government.

At a rapid and regular pace, states across the country are targeting immigrant communities, employing harsh rhetoric that often paints immigrants as scapegoats for social issues and implementing policies that have a severe impact on mental health and well-being for citizen and noncitizen families alike. SB 4 will put lives in jeopardy.

While the bill is not scheduled to take effect until March, its signing has already stirred fear and uncertainty within the Latino, Black and brown communities in Texas similar to the impact of immigration actions on communities’ well-being during a different version of SB 4 in Texas — the “sanctuary” cities bill that was declared partially unconstitutional by the federal district court judge in August 2017.

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Community organizers and lawyers in Texas have voiced concerns about the bill’s far-reaching effects. This unease is particularly significant given that Hispanic Texans now constitute nearly 40% of the state’s population, recently surpassing non-Hispanic white Texans, as revealed by a Texas Tribune analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Prevention through deterrence and border militarization strategies have led to an increase in racial profiling for citizens and non-citizens alike in Texas and in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. A new journal article published in the American Behavioral Scientist examines the firsthand experiences of U.S. citizens living in the 100-mile border enforcement zone in Arizona with Customs and Border Protection officials, where Black and brown citizens reported being the subject of constant interrogations by officials, facing prolonged questions and secondary inspections.

Texas is no stranger to border militarization and harsh immigration enforcement measures. Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star has captured the attention of media and policymakers. The border security initiative is a set of measures launched by Abbott in March 2021 that purports to stop “the smuggling of people and drugs into Texas” and deter or arrest migrants who attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Key to Operation Lone Star is the deployment of the National Guard and Department of Public Safety state troopers. The program has already cost state taxpayers billions of dollars to date. According to December 2023 reporting by CBS News, approximately 10,000 people have been arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges under Operation Lone Star since 2021 — a subset of the more than 30,000 arrests made since it went into force.

An investigation into Operation Lone Star by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and The Marshall Project found that these included arrests of U.S. citizens hundreds of miles from the border, and that the state’s touting of success of the program was based on unclear, shifting metrics — raising concerns abouts human rights violations and lack of accountability.

In this context, SB 4 not only adds to the already troubling landscape but also mirrors Arizona’s SB 1070, once considered the strictest anti-immigrant law of its time. SB 1070, enacted in 2010, allowed police to make arrests without warrants under certain circumstances and to check the immigration status of people if they had “reasonable suspicion” that they were not authorized to be in the United States. Both SB 1070 and SB 4 criminalize unauthorized presence and raise fears of racial profiling, with SB 4 going further by enabling state officials to remove detained migrants to Mexico.

As states continue to adopt such measures, immigrant communities face increasing threats. For the protection of immigrant health and well-being, state-level immigration policies should be crafted with a focus on safeguarding individuals rather than compromising their lives. In light of the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Texas over SB 4, it is imperative for the Biden administration to heed calls from county executives and nonprofits urging preventive measures to stop the legislation from taking effect. Under federal law and laws upheld by the United States Supreme Court, the federal government has sole jurisdiction in enforcing immigration laws — Texas’ harsh policies like SB 4 and Operation Lone Star do more harm than good to immigrant well-being.

The trajectory of state-level measures, like Texas’s SB 4, signals a bleak reality for vulnerable populations, where well-being takes a backseat to stringent enforcement. Neglecting the well-being of vulnerable populations can result in negative consequences such as increased health care costs. This unfolding narrative demands a critical examination and acknowledgment of the challenges vulnerable populations face.

Thomas Rachko serves as a research-to-policy implementation specialist at the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute and Immigrant Well-Being Scholar Collaborative. Johanna Cajina serves as the communications manager at the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute.


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