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Texas Senate Panel Advances Bill Increasing Penalty for Human Smuggling

A bill to stop the smuggling of migrants who enter Texas and that creates a minimum decade-long prison sentence for smugglers drew support from a Senate panel Tuesday.

Their endorsement fulfills Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for a special session he called hours after the regular session ended last month. The proposal, written by Sen. Pete Flores, R-Lakeway, establishes a “mandatory minimum” prison sentence of 10 years. Prison time can decrease to five years if the suspect cooperates with officials for human smuggling.

Currently, smuggling is a third-degree felony with a minimum two-year sentence that cannot exceed 10 years.

The bill also increases the offense of operating a stash house from a Class A misdemeanor — punishable for maximum of a one-year prison sentence — to a third-degree felony with a minimum 5-year sentence.

Abbott, who has made border security one of his key priorities-made increasing the penalty for human smuggling one of his seven emergency items during his State of the State speech in February.

“Illegal smuggling is being aided and abetted by U.S. residents,” Abbott said. “That must stop.”

The Border Security committee voted 4-1. Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, joined the three other Republicans on the panel. The panel, however, decided not to support House Bill 2 by Republican Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City.

Smuggling received national attention in Texas last year following the deaths of 53 migrants inside a tractor trailer left under the scorching sun in June 2022. Two men were federally indicted in July over the tragedy.

Opponents of the increased penalty proposal disagree that stiffening the punishment will deter or stop people from committing smuggling offenses.

Nick Hudson, the policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, said creating a mandatory minimum system would ban judges from weighing different circumstances when considering individual cases that deal with smuggling.

“Mandatory minimums are not evidence-based,” Hudson said. “People don’t actually know what the criminal penalties of certain offenses are most of the time when they are committing these sorts of serious offenses.”

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, supports efforts to beef up border security but doubts the call for harder human smuggling penalties will have the desired effect.

“What on God’s green Earth would make us think that increasing sentences for human smugglers is the new solution,” Canales said in a telephone interview. “At this point, I don’t believe that we are meeting the goals that the public expects from us.”

The Senate is scheduled to return at 6 p.m. Tuesday and will likely give approval- on Flores’ smuggling bill. The Senate will also likely consider two other border related proposals that sway away from Abbott’s directive for the first overtime session.

Senate Bill 2 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, makes it a new state crime for unauthorized entry by a migrant from a foreign nation. Senate Bill 8, also by Birdwell, creates the Texas Border Force which would be housed under the Texas Rangers. Both bills advanced along a 3-2 party line vote.

But, in what could signal more tension between the two chambers of the Capitol, the panel chose not to bring up Guillen’s bill and simply left it pending.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate president, said there were flaws in the bill.

“We have no one to work with,” Patrick said. “The Senate continues to work and the House continues to stay home.”

After Patrick’s news conference, Cait Wittman, a spokeswoman for Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement that the Senate is the chamber that has not passed bills relevant to Abbott’s agenda.

“We encourage the Senate to follow the House’s lead so that Texans can have the property tax relief and the secure border they deserve,” Wittman said.

Source: The Dallas Morning News