Texas Dems Call for Decriminalizing Border Crossing

Beto O'Rourke / Getty Images
August 24, 2018

Crossing the border illegally should no longer be a criminal matter, three Texas Democrats running for national office said over the weekend.

Senate candidate Rob O'Rourke, gubernatorial candidate Lupa Valdez, and House candidate Veronica Escobar all backed the proposal, the Huffington Post reports.

Illegally crossing the border is currently a criminal act under federal law, with an associated fine and maximum of six months jail time for the first offense. The Trump administration took advantage of this fact in its "zero tolerance" policy, which required U.S. Attorneys in the border states to charge every violator criminally, rather than waiving prosecution and immediately deporting.

To Escobar, who is expected to win a House seat in El Paso, the case for decriminalizing comes down to not treating immigration as a crime.

"The United States has built a system on incarcerating migrants," she told the Huffington Post. "We really have to evaluate the way that we've criminalized migration."

Decriminalizing improper entry would gut zero tolerance, which helps to explain why Democrats like the three Texans might back it. The proposal, the Huffington Post wrote, would still allow the government to civilly fine border crossers. It would also be "logistically simpler" than abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Valdez, a former customs agent, argued that individuals crossing illegally were, by-and-large, not otherwise a criminal threat, and so to classify them as such was misleading.

"It's time to reform and look at things. The majority of people are not coming in to do harm. ... We still have to have some kind of checking and verifying, but I don't think coming in here undocumented should be a criminal issue," she said.

O'Rourke, meanwhile, did not make quite such categorical statement, but focused specifically on asylum seekers at the southwestern border.

"These asylum-seekers—penniless, at wit's end, after surviving three weeks on the road, very often with their children—then attempt to do what I think any human would do, which is to request asylum in between the ports of entry," he said. "We should not criminalize that."

80 percent of asylum claims made at the southwestern border are eventually deemed fraudulent.

Although the three border state Democrats seemed warm to the idea, it has yet to find much traction in the Democratic party. There, leaders have instead focused on ICE abolition. At least one bill to abolish ICE—lacking in any real details—has been put forward by a House Democrat.

But even on this proposal, Democrats have been skittish. That may be because ICE abolition is unpopular: just one in four support it, according to a recent poll.