A new bill that would give state and local entities the power to arrest and expel undocumented immigrants in Texas could have “enormous” fiscal impacts on local county governments, said Julie Wheeler, Travis County intergovernmental relations officer.

The proposal, called Senate Bill 4, passed Nov. 14 after hours of debate and now awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s approval. Abbott has said he will sign the bill, which will go into effect in early March.

The bill would cost Travis County at least $9 million per year and up to tens of millions of dollars, Wheeler said.

The details

For the first time, state and local law enforcement would have the power to arrest undocumented immigrants, marking what Wheeler called a “fundamental shift” in how immigration is managed in Texas.

Previously, only the federal government has enforced immigration, and undocumented immigrants could not be arrested unless they committed a separate crime.

First-time violators of the bill would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which is a county-level offense and needs to be served in a county jail, Wheeler said.

Migrants cannot be arrested at schools, places of religious worship or medical facilities, the bill states.

Those convicted of the crime will serve up to six months in jail and cannot be released through community supervision, Wheeler said.

The impact

SB 4 could lead to more arrests and time served in Travis County Jail, costing the county millions of dollars and putting added pressure on an already short-staffed corrections department, Wheeler said.

As of Nov. 1, the corrections department had a 32% vacancy rate with 236 unfilled positions.

One jailed person costs the county between $125-$600 per day, depending on their physical and mental health care needs. That range does not take into account the cost of indigent defense or interpreters.

In August, the Travis County Jail saw 318 inmates with immigration detainers, which cost the county $1.65 million, according to data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Wheeler said she expects those numbers to go up when SB 4 takes effect.

“I think there's been a perception that the bill would just impact border counties, but any person that's here that wouldn't be able to show their status could be charged with this new offense,” Wheeler said. “You don't need to be on the border for that to happen. You could be in Midland; you could be in Austin.”

What’s next

Shortly after SB 4 passed, the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement outlining their intentions to sue the state when Abbott signs the bill.

“It’s shameful that the governor and his allies are wasting taxpayer money on this unlawful cruelty instead of addressing our real needs: keeping the lights on, our schools open and our teachers paid,” said Oni K. Blair, executive director at the ACLU of Texas, in the news release.

“Texans across the state have resoundingly opposed these bills from the beginning, and we’re not backing down.”