Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass.

People convicted of smuggling immigrants into Texas will face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years after a new state law went into effect Feb. 6.

Texas lawmakers approved Senate Bill 4 in October, during their third special legislative session.

Tightening penalties for illegal immigration is one of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priorities. Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are currently in a legal standoff with the federal government over razor wire barriers along the Texas-Mexico border.

What you need to know

SB 4 raises the minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for smuggling humans. As he signed the bill in December, Abbott said human smuggling has accelerated in Texas.

“In 2017, there were 370 arrests for smuggling illegal immigrants in Texas,” Abbott said. “Now in 2023, that number has skyrocketed to 7,700 arrests.”

The new law also creates a five-year minimum sentence for harboring undocumented immigrants in “stash houses.”

Proponents of the bill have said it will crack down on drug cartels and other criminals, while some immigrant rights advocates argue it will contribute to racial profiling without deterring criminals.

What they’re saying

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas estimated SB 4 would cost taxpayers over $1 billion annually.

“Harsh sentences like those in SB 4 increase racial disparities and are ineffective at deterrence,” said Nick Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, in a statement. “This law is another example of how our politicians fail to listen to border communities when [they] make policy concerning immigration. Our border communities need resources to strengthen and build them up, not another law that can be used by the police to deteriorate [their] fabric.”

At the Capitol

Texas must “send a strong message of zero tolerance” to smugglers, bill sponsor Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, said on the Texas House floor in October.

“[SB 4] provides law enforcement all necessary tools to target and to prosecute these criminals, while also considering nuances, such as family ties and the degree of cooperation [with law enforcement],” Guillen said.

Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, questioned Guillen about who could be charged with smuggling under SB 4.

“Let’s say you have a preacher or priest who is picking up individuals for church service, and some of them happen to be undocumented. ... What if an individual’s taking somebody who they know is undocumented, doesn’t have papers, to the doctor—could they be charged?” Neave Criado asked.

Guillen said the bill does not change the definition of smuggling, which is “already a high bar” in state law.

“They first have to encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in the country in violation of the law,” Guillen said. “They also have to conceal, harbor or shield a person from detection, and they would have to do those things knowingly” to be charged with or convicted of smuggling.

Rep. Eddie Morales Jr., D-Eagle Pass, also sponsored SB 4 in the House. The lifelong border resident and nine other members of the chamber’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus voted for the bill.

“Human smuggling has become a billion-dollar industry fueled by the cartels. In many respects, these cartels are fueling the border crisis,” Morales said in a statement. “This bill targets bad people trying to exploit migrants for profit, not regular citizens who casually have an undocumented resident in their car.”

Another angle

Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, argued that under SB 4, Texans who knowingly employ undocumented immigrants should be charged with smuggling.

“How many people in your communities do you know—rancher, farmer or soccer mom—who knows that the person they employ is unauthorized, is undocumented, but they just pay them under the table?” Anchia said. “That's the dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about today, is that all of that is smuggling.”

Stay tuned

Abbott signed two other immigration bills into law in December. SB 3 sets aside $1.54 billion to help Texas continue to build a wall along the Texas-Mexico border.

Lawmakers have said the state could build around 100 miles of border wall with the new funding. So far, over 16 miles of wall have been built, and 33 miles are in the works, Abbott said in December.

Another bill known as SB 4, this time from the fourth special session, gives Texas the authority to arrest and deport migrants who enter the state illegally. Currently, only the federal government can deport migrants.

The U.S. Department of Justice, El Paso County and two immigrant rights groups have sued Texas in attempts to stop the controversial bill from becoming law. They argue SB 4 is unconstitutional because it violates the federal government’s immigration authority, while Abbott contends Texas must create its own immigration laws to tackle a “border crisis.”

Both bills are scheduled to become law March 5.