By Tom Benning | Dallas Morning News | January 25, 2016
Photo is of U.S. Border Patrol agents detaining undocumented immigrants after tracking them through the brush on September 11, 2014 near Falfurrias, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Austin – A national Latino civil rights group is challenging a much-debated human smuggling provision that was included in the high-profile border security bill passed last year by the Legislature.
MALDEF on Sunday sued top Texas officials over what it calls the “immigrant harboring” provision. The group argues that the state overstepped its authority with the toughened measure, potentially ensnaring well-meaning Texans along the way.
The law “accomplishes nothing but to embroil Texas in litigation and to divide the state in the name of political gamesmanship,” Thomas Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel, said in a news release.
The human smuggling provision was discussed at length last year as part of the session’s border security bill. That multi-faceted measure – pushed by the GOP– provided the framework for the state to spend $800 million on border security over the next two years.
Lawmakers said their goal was to target those engaged in the criminal business of smuggling. But codifying that intent proved difficult, as many raised concerns that pastors, immigration-rights groups and others could be roped in with felony charges.
“The bill that was filed … didn’t account for a lot situations that could put family members or people innocently going about their day in the sights of prosecution,” said Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass.
So Republicans and Democrats – along with a spate of attorneys – teamed up to allay those concerns.
They ended up focusing on those who “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.” The person would have to have the intent of obtaining financial gain.
That work helped the bill receive significant Democratic support. But it didn’t erase all worries.
“We needed to rifle shot that thing a little bit more,” said Nevarez, who worked on the language and still voted for the bill. “We tried, and it may be that this lawsuit is a good way of showing us how we need to tailor the statute a little bit better.”
The MALDEF suit focuses on two landlords – one in Farmers Branch – who don’t ask their tenants to prove their immigration status before renting, along with an aid group that provides shelter and legal services to those who are in the country illegally.
Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who also worked on the bill , said a prosecutor would be “ill-advised” to pursue those cases. He added: “The goal was to be precise in targeting people that were part of smuggling networks, part of a criminal element.”
It’s unclear how many people have been prosecuted under the statute. The MALDEF suit – aimed at Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and the Texas Public Safety Commission – focuses instead on the fear of prosecution.