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US: Supreme Court Opens Door to Chaos, Abuse in Texas

Allows Law Letting Police Deport Migrants to Stand, For Now

People hold a banner during a protest against Operation Lone Star after members of the Texas National Guard shot and wounded a 22-year-old near the Bridge of the Americas in El Paso, Texas, September 1, 2023.  © 2023 REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

(Austin, March 19, 2024) – The US Supreme Court ruling on March 19, 2024, that allows Texas state police to arrest and deport people Texas officials claim have entered the US illegally while federal courts consider the constitutionality of these powers puts people fearing persecution into immediate danger, Human Rights Watch said today.

It also gives disproportionate and overreaching immigration enforcement powers to state and local law enforcement officers. The ruling allows the law to go into effect while the court challenge proceeds through the federal courts.

“National governments are entitled to regulate their borders so long as they comply with international human rights and refugee law,” said Bob Libal, Texas consultant at Human Rights Watch. “But allowing Texas to run with its draconian system of criminalization and returns of asylum seekers is a recipe for chaos and abuse.”

SB 4, the Texas law the Supreme Court will be reviewing, allows state and local police to arrest migrants entering Texas between official border crossings and charge them with either improper entry, punishable up to 1 year in prison, or improper re-entry, punishable by 2 to 20 years. The law allows the state to order the removal of migrants in lieu of a criminal penalty, even if they have a claim to asylum due to fears of persecution or other serious harm if deported.

The return of asylum seekers to a place where they fear persecution or other serious harm violates US federal law as well as US obligations under international human rights and refugee law, Human Rights Watch said.

The new law applies throughout Texas and is likely to increase racial profiling, clog state courts, and fill jails. It is also likely to distract police from other public safety work by requiring them to instead focus on arresting and prosecuting people seeking to rejoin family, find protection, or make a better life. Civil rights groups and the US federal government have challenged the measure on constitutional grounds.

Another new Texas state law that went into effect in February creates a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison for people found guilty of smuggling or running a “stash house.” Human Rights Watch found the vast majority of the thousands of people booked for smuggling under existing Texas laws were young Texans, who often did nothing more than drive people from border communities to other parts of Texas. Nearly 80 percent of those booked for smuggling were US citizens, with a median age of 26. Almost 13 percent were 18 or 19 years old.

Yet another law passed in 2023 more than doubles funding to continue border wall construction, adding US$1.54 billion to an existing purse of nearly $1.5 billion to build 40 miles of barriers along the 1,200-mile long Texas-Mexico border.

The laws build on Governor Greg Abbott's high-profile busing of migrants to cities with Democratic leadership, as well as his Operation Lone Star. This discriminatory and abusive operation targets perceived migrants and others for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration on state misdemeanor and felony offenses, as well as building walls, “buoy barriers,” and concertina wire along the border.

“Operation Lone Star has ballooned into a nearly $12 billion multilayered state government program of unnecessarily harsh laws that has led to scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries to migrants and US citizens alike,” Libal said. “Make no mistake: Operation Lone Star risks lives and recklessly squanders public resources.”

While there is no evidence Operation Lone Star has slowed migration, the program has led to injuries and deaths, consistently violated the rights of migrants and US citizens, and included attacks on freedoms of association and expression of groups providing basic aid in Texas, Human Rights Watch said.

Dangerous chases of vehicles thought to contain migrants under Operation Lone Star have led to crashes that killed at least 74 people and injured at least another 189 in a 29-month period, according to a Human Rights Watch report in November. The dead and injured included migrants and US citizens, including many bystanders.

Operation Lone Star has most likely strengthened illicit actors who profit from the heightened fears of migrants and blocked or impeded opportunities for people to request asylum in the United States, which is their right under US law. Criminal cartels’ profits increase when migrants attempt to enter the US by traveling through remote and deadly terrain.

“Texas’s SB 4 and all components of Operation Lone Star are helping criminal cartels increase their profits and coercive power over migrants and border communities,” Libal said. “The federal government should immediately cease all funding and collaboration with Operation Lone Star, for as long as Texas continues on this dangerous and deadly path.”

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