AUSTIN (Nexstar) — On Wednesday in McAllen, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law that seeks to crack down on human smuggling.

SB 576 broadens the definition of a smuggler and increases the number of smuggling charges that constitute a second-degree felony. 

“This all makes it easier to arrest and to prosecute human smugglers. This law also increases criminal penalties for human smuggling, especially when payment is involved in that process,” said Abbott at Wednesday’s press conference. 

In the Rio Grande sector alone, border patrol agents have found a total of 425 migrant stash houses throughout the valley, which equates to a 250% increase since last year, according to border patrol agent Jesse Moreno. He said these stash houses, which can range from hotel rooms to trailers, are oftentimes found in dreadful conditions. 

“We’ve seen instances where there have been 30 plus people in a small trailer home that’s meant for about a family of four or five people… the accumulated trash is built up for days on end without anyone taking it out,” said Moreno.

Earlier this month, border patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley found more than 10 migrants living in a single hotel room, some of whom had been staying there for more than 30 days. 

“Somebody spotted suspicious activity and notified us, and our border patrol agents went out there, observed two individuals that were ultimately harboring additional subjects there,” Moreno explained.

However, according to Moreno, catching smugglers in the act is a much trickier operation. 

“A lot of times the person that is harboring the individuals there will not be on location when law enforcement agents arrive at the location, because they know that there is consequences for their illicit activity,” Moreno explained. 

While SB 576 increases law enforcement’s ability to prosecute smugglers and the severity of their punishment, it does not aid in catching them. However, Moreno hopes the law will serve as a warning for smugglers. 

“Any operation that imposes stiffer fines or jail time for individuals is a deterrent, and we appreciate the assistance that we can get.”

The bill officially went into effect on Sept. 1.

Leaving the Legislature

In the days since the start of the third special session, two Texas House members announced they will not run for re-election next year. They join a growing list of members choosing to leave their seats in the legislature.

The departing members generally fall into two distinct camps — those leaving for family and other personal reasons, and those seeking higher office.

On Wednesday, Austin Democrat Celia Israel announced she’s forming an exploratory committee to run for Mayor of Austin. Israel currently represents Texas House District 50, which stretches from north Austin to Pflugerville and further east close to Elgin. She won that seat in 2014. 

“I’ve proven I’m not afraid of hard work nor the technical challenges and coalition-building it takes to keep a city moving,” Israel said in a statement.

Israel is one of five House members leaving to launch campaigns for different elected offices. Fellow Democrat Michelle Beckley announced in July that she would run for Congress. Beckley is challenging Republican incumbent Beth Van Duyne for the seat in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Three House Republicans are also running for higher office. Tan Parker is running for State Senate in District 12. James White launched his campaign for Agriculture Commissioner. He’ll face incumbent Sid Miller in next year’s Republican primary.

State Rep. Matt Krause announced that he’s joining the hotly-contested race for Texas Attorney General. That puts him in a crowded field for the Republican primary, where he’ll face current Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Krause has previously been an ally of Paxton. Krause said upheaval in Paxton’s office raises questions about his ability to focus on the job. “I’ve been a supporter in the past, but new information, new developments have caused me to even consider getting into this race,” Krause said.

Like Rep. Israel, Marshall Republican Chris Paddie also announced this week that he would not run for re-election. He released a statement Wednesday explaining his decision.

“I have decided that the timing is right to spend more time with my family and allow my East Texas colleagues to spend time fighting for our values instead of having to make some of the tough choices required in the redistricting process,” Paddie wrote in the statement.

Paddie’s announcement came two days after he posted about the death of his cousin due to COVID-19.

Paddie is one of four House members who cited family and personal responsibilities as the reason for choosing not to run for re-election. That list includes Dallas Democrat John Turner as well as Republicans Scott Sanford and Ben Leman.

Two state Senators have also announced plans to leave the legislature. Dallas-area Republican Jane Nelson announced her retirement in July. She’s served in the Senate since 1993. Austin-area Republican Dawn Buckingham is now running for Land Commissioner. She recently earned an endorsement from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Justice for Some investigation

Massive floods tore through Central Texas on Memorial Day weekend in 2015. Rivers spilled over their banks and ripped waterfront homes from their foundations. Towns were inundated.

While tragic deaths on the Blanco River and a ruptured dam in Bastrop State Park captured headlines, few noticed the damage to a low water crossing on Wilbarger Creek Drive — a private dead-end road south of Elgin.

Nobody knew then how that broken bridge would brew a political storm of its own. Two years later, Bastrop County Commissioner Gary “Bubba” Snowden would be charged with three counts of abuse of official capacity. Two of the charges were felonies for misusing public dollars and county resources to resurface part of the road without the approval of county commissioners.

Snowden’s case was investigated under the state’s redesigned Public Integrity Unit. The previous state-funded Public Integrity Unit housed in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office was dismantled in 2015, following allegations it was politicizing prosecutions. State lawmakers aimed to reform the system by moving state public corruption investigations to the Department of Public Safety’s Texas Rangers and prosecuting accused officials in their home counties rather than Travis County.

Though the sea change in Public Integrity Unit prosecutions didn’t fundamentally alter how Snowden’s case was handled, the former Bastrop County commissioner’s indictment and prosecution do exemplify most public corruption cases processed under the new system.

Now, six years later, an investigation by the Texas Observer and KXAN found prosecutions of statewide public officials for corruption are nearly non-existent. Since 2015, the Rangers investigated a handful of state-level elected leaders, but few faced charges.

From 2015 to 2020, the Texas Rangers completed more than 560 public corruption case investigations, but only 67 of those cases have been prosecuted, according to DPS data analyzed by the Observer. DPS said in an email to the Observer there were hundreds more inquiries and complaints beyond those investigated. No officials with DPS or the Texas Rangers would agree to speak with KXAN for this report.

The prosecutions that have taken place are mostly against lower-level local officials or government employees and typically end with light sentences. Several Central Texas cases followed that pattern.

In 2015, critics of reforming the Travis County Public Integrity Unit said a legislative overhaul would have the opposite effect of what reformers intended. They said prosecuting public officials in their home territory and giving local prosecutors the option to oversee cases — and drop charges — would invite a new type of corruption and reduce accountability.

House Bill 1690 was signed into law in September of that year, but not before a number of watchdog groups and a prosecution expert vented their concerns with the legislation.

“This seems to be an issue of home cooking, if you will,” said Sarah Smith, who represented Texas Public Interest Research Group. Smith testified at a March 26, 2015, hearing for the bill in the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee.

“You can go back to your district with the same DAs that you probably campaigned with on the election trail, the same judges that you’ve probably known all your life, and I think the biggest issue is the perception,” she said.