Oppose HB 4, uphold the rights and dignity of every person, foster the common good

The following testimony was delivered on Nov. 9 before the House State Affairs Committee by Justin Estep, senior director of Immigration and Refugee Services, Catholic Charities of Central Texas.

As a church of immigrants, the Catholic Church has a long history of involvement in the immigration issue. Our experience in working with immigrants throughout the years compels us to speak out on the issue of immigration reform, which is a moral and human rights issue. The Church does not condone or encourage illegal immigration because it is not good for society or for the migrant, who lives in fear and in the shadows. We plead with our government leaders to change our laws to ensure that we, as a nation and as a state, enforce our laws only in a manner that respects the rights and dignity given by our Creator to each person.   

We must emphasize that the church supports the right of a sovereign nation to control its borders. We want the federal government to enact effective and humane border management as part of a framework of comprehensive immigration reforms. All law enforcement agencies can and should cooperate with each other but should not take over each other’s responsibilities or jurisdiction. The obligation to control the international border lies with federal authorities. 

 For years, burdens of an unworkable system of immigration have fallen heavily on states and communities along the US-Mexico border. The human and moral cost of ongoing federal inaction to create an effective set of policies to ensure safe and orderly migration is tragically reflected both in the continuing number of persons wishing to enter the country and the unacceptable and increasing number of deaths of migrants at the border in the past year.  

HB 4 which creates a state criminal offense of entering Texas anywhere but a lawful port of entry, mimicking the offense in federal code, is problematic for several reasons. First, it does not make any provision for those seeking asylum. Many migrants cross the border without lawful status but then file for asylum or other forms of legal relief as soon as possible through the federal system. This bill could significantly delay the federal process for asylum seekers as the penalty for a Class B misdemeanor is up to six months in jail. The asylum process is already long and arduous and to delay its initiation by detention is unjust. This law will undoubtedly re-victimize victims of the terrible drivers of forced displacement. 

Moreover, the bill also empowers law enforcement to remove an individual in lieu of arrest – without essential guarantees of due process, checks or accountability measures - potentially denying altogether the opportunity for a migrant to apply for asylum which would also be a grave injustice. Actions by local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law threaten to erode both community trust and community security. We are also gravely concerned at the potential for family separation raised by the application of this law. Second, the cost to the state to implement this legislation could be enormous considering the tens of thousands of migrants that state and local law enforcement encounter every year. The courts and detention facilities will be overwhelmed. There will also be the cost of litigation if the state is sued over this legislation. Third, the bill is unlikely to deter either migrants fleeing violence and poverty, or the criminals engaged in human trafficking and drug trafficking. 

Immigration enforcement should be exercised in a way that is targeted, proportional, and humane.  

By “targeted” we mean that enforcement resources should be focused so that those who are dangerous are more easily identified and apprehended. Enforcement policies should be tailored and not overly broad, and should allay legitimate fears of racial profiling, so the basic rights of all immigrants are respected.  

By “proportional” we mean that enforcement of immigration laws should not feature unnecessary penalties or force. Immigration control officers and border patrol agents should receive intensive training on appropriate enforcement tactics and use of force.  

Finally, by “humane” we mean that in any enforcement action, the human rights and dignity of the person should be preserved and respected to the greatest extent possible. Families should not be separated and should receive special consideration. Undocumented immigrants should not be detained for lengthy periods or intermingled with violent offenders. Asylum seekers should receive appropriate screening by a qualified adjudicator. Children should be accommodated within a child welfare context. 

We understand the situation at the border has become untenable, but HB 4 is not the solution. The Church will continue to work with civic leaders, especially our Texas legislators, to uphold the rights and dignity of every person and to foster the common good.