PHOENIX — Led by tough-talking Republican governors weighing presidential runs, Texas and Florida are debating especially strict legislation on border security as the GOP tests federal authority over immigration.
The moves in the two GOP-controlled statehouses come against a backdrop of polarization in Congress that makes any national immigration legislation seem unlikely as President Joe Biden tries to drive down migrant arrivals at the border while eyeing his own reelection bid.
Republican proposals in Texas build on Gov. Greg Abbott’s $4 billion project Operation Lone Star, with its construction of more barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border and busing of migrants to Democratic-led cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York. Abbott's aides confirm he's considering running for president.
Operation Lone Star already has added more officers along Texas' border with Mexico to detain migrants who trespass on private property. Now, Texas lawmakers have proposed creating a new border police force that could deputize private citizens, as well as making it a state felony to enter the state without authorization, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“Texas is taking historic action to secure the border and stop guns, drugs, and cartel gangs from assailing our state,” Abbott said in a tweet this week. “As President Biden abandons his constitutional duty, Texas continues to step up.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered Donald Trump's strongest possible GOP competitor so far in next year's presidential primary, has proposed making human smuggling in the state a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Hospitals would be required to collect data on patients' immigration status and people in the U.S. illegally would be denied state government ID cards.
“Texas and Florida are places with politically ambitious governors who are hoping to use immigrants in the furtherance of their agendas,” said attorney Tanya Broder of the National Immigration Law Center, which promotes immigrant rights.
Despite the hardline rhetoric, Broder said advancements in immigrant rights have been quietly made in recent years.
State-level organization has improved immigrants’ access to health care, higher education, professional licenses and driver’s licenses, according to a recent study Broder co-authored.
The study noted Colorado became the first state to enact an alternative to unemployment insurance for excluded workers. Arizona voters last year approved in-state tuition for all students who attended high school in the state, regardless of their immigration status.
Abbott and DeSantis blame Biden for a big increase last year in illegal crossings into the U.S. But a plunge this year in illegal crossing numbers could throw cold water on the GOP's attacks against Biden's handling of border issues. The sharp drop along the Southwest border followed the Biden administration's announcement of stricter immigration measures.
The U.S. Border Patrol said it encountered migrants 128,877 times trying to cross the border in February between the legal ports of entry, the lowest monthly number since February 2021. Agents detained migrants more than 2.5 million times at the southern border in 2022, including more than 250,000 in December, the highest on record.
“Florida will not turn a blind eye to the dangers of Biden’s Border Crisis,” DeSantis said in a tweet last month announcing Florida’s legislation. “We are proposing additional steps to protect Floridians from these reckless federal policies, including mandatory E-Verify and prohibiting local government from issuing ID cards to illegal aliens.”
While Texas and Florida officials ballyhoo their border tightening efforts, no major immigration legislation has emerged this year in Arizona, where some of the nation's toughest laws targeting immigrants have been devised.
Arizona's “show me your papers” law, passed in 2010, required law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of a person stopped or arrested if the officers suspected the person may be in the U.S. unlawfully, a practice detractors said encouraged racial profiling. Courts eventually struck down several of the law's provisions.
Arizona's Republican lawmakers are up against Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, who this year has vetoed a GOP-backed budget and a bill that bans teaching public schoolchildren subject matter its authors describe as “critical race theory.”
New Mexico, which also shares a border with Mexico, has since 2021 steadily removed barriers for migrants without legal status to access public benefits, student financial aid and licensure in credentialed professions.
After taking office in 2019, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham withdrew the majority of National Guard troops her Republican predecessor sent to the border, denouncing a “charade of border fear-mongering.”
New Mexico's Legislature is also controlled by Democrats. Nevertheless, legislators this week rejected a proposal to bar state and local government agencies from contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants as they seek asylum.
In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers last month launched a new attempt to require sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration agents interested in picking up certain jail inmates believed to be in the U.S. unlawfully. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper twice vetoed earlier versions of the measure, but Republican majorities in the General Assembly have since increased.
A similar Idaho effort so far has failed to make it beyond its legislative introduction.
Immigration-related legislation in other states includes:
— A Georgia bill that failed to advance that would give in-state college tuition to immigrant students who arrived in the U.S. as children and who are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Bills are advancing that would ban companies and some people from certain foreign countries from buying farmland within 25 miles (40 kilometers) of any military base.
— A Colorado bill aimed at allowing immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and are protected from deportation to own a firearm so they can become law-enforcement officers.