2024 Smuggling of Persons Update

Texas passed a new law in late 2023 that cracks down on human smuggling along the border. Notably, SB 4 now adds a ten-year minimum jail term for the crime of Smuggling of Persons in Texas. This law will take effect on February 6, 2024.

This law is extreme and carries a tougher jail term compared to a first-time federal alien smuggling crime. Strikingly, the average jail term for a federal alien smuggling crime is 15 months. As we will see below, this contrast in jail terms puts Texas front and center in the fight to stop human smuggling.

To see why this happened and what your options after this law goes into effect, this post will take a deep dive into the crime of human smuggling along the border. From there, we will show you how this new law works and list the new jail penalties under SB4. Finally, we will answer frequently asked questions about Smuggling of Persons in Texas.

Why did Texas pass a 10-year minimum jail term for the crime of Smuggling of Persons?

The Legislature decided that the current jail terms for human smuggling in Texas are too low. Under pre-SB4 law, a human smuggling crime in state court is often a third degree or second degree felony. A third degree felony carries 2 to 10 years in jail. And a second degree felony carries 2 to 20 years in jail. And in many cases, first-time alien smugglers receive probation in state court.

This created a good deal for cartels and smugglers. The reason is money. Human smuggling is big business along the border. And the lure of money is why so many people try to smuggle migrants.

To explain, migrants pay cartels large sums of money to cross into the United States. After that, migrants pay smugglers in the United States to drive them from the border to major cities like San Antonio, Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

To make this deal work, cartels advertise and recruit drivers on social media. The content of these ads vary. But they all have the same theme: “fast cash, clean routes, easy money.” The cartels also promise to pay drivers $2,500 or more per person.

The end result is that people agree to smuggle migrants for money. And they continue to smuggle migrants even after police arrest them for this crime. Stated differently, the large amount of money in these cases spur many people to do the crime again. As a result, Texas passed SB 4 to reduce the incentive for this crime.

What are the new jail terms for the crime of Smuggling of Persons in 2024?

2024 SB 4 LawDescription and TriggersPenaltyFine
Tex. Pen. Code 20.05(b)Base Offense10 years$0 - $10,000.00.
Tex. Pen. Code 20.05(b)(1)(A) Creates a high risk that the migrant will be badly hurt or killed;

(B) The migrant is a child under 18 years of age;

(C) The smuggler did the crime for money; or

(E) The smuggler flees from police.
10 years - 20 years in jail.$0 - $10,000.00.
Tex. Pen. Code 20.05(b)(2)(A) Someone raped the migrant during the smuggling crime; or

(B) The migrant suffered serious bodily injury or died during the crime.
10 years - Life or 99 years in jail.$0 - $10,000.00.
The base offense level for Smuggling of Persons in Texas is a third degree felony. However, there are certain triggers that push the crime from a third degree to either a second or first degree felony. In short, the facts in your case will determine which offense level applies.

Additionally, the new penalties go into effect on February 6, 2024. And they only apply to your case if you are arrested on or after February 6, 2024.

Consequently, if police arrest you before February 6, 2024, then the old penalties will apply to your case. The table below has the pre-SB4 jail terms.

What are the jail terms for Smuggling of Persons before SB 4 becomes law?

Law until 2/6/2024.DescriptionPenalty until February 6, 2024.Fine.
Tex. Penal Code § 20.05(b)Base Offense.2-10 years in jail.$0-$10,000.00.
Tex. Penal Code § 20.05(b)(1)1. Creates a risk of serious injury or death.

2. Smuggled person is a minor.

3. Smuggled person for profit.

4. Defendant or another person possessed a gun during the crime.

5. The smuggler flees from police.

2-20 years in jail.$0-$10,000.00.
Tex. Penal Code § 20.05(b)(2)1. A smuggled person is raped.

2. A smuggled person is seriously hurt or killed.
5-99 years or life in jail.$0-$10,000.00.
* Texas passed SB 4 on November 21, 2023. This new law raises the jail time for Smuggling of Persons in Texas.

However, this table shows the jail terms for Smuggling of Persons committed before February 6, 2024.

Finally, if someone rapes a migrant during the crime or if someone is killed during the crime, then it becomes a first-degree felony. This carries between 5 to 99 years or life in jail.

How can I avoid the 10-year minimum jail term for smuggling of persons?

SB4 has a safe harbor for third-degree felonies. It allows the State to lower the minimum jail term from 10 years to 5 years. But there is a catch.

Namely, it requires the person to cooperate with police. Specifically, cooperation means any of the following acts:

  1. Testifying for the State against other parties in the crime;
  2. Giving police relevant information about the crime and people involved;
  3. Providing information that helps police move forward with their investigation; or
  4. Giving information that helps police.

If the defendant does this, then the prosecutor will tell the judge at the sentencing hearing that the person cooperated. From there, the judge will lower the minimum jail term from 10 to 5 years.

Does the new 10-year minimum jail term for smuggling of persons apply to my case?

The new law will only apply to crimes that happen on or after February 6, 2024. If police arrest you before this date, then the old law will apply. This is true even if the State indicts you after February 6, 2024. The key takeaway is that the law in effect when you were arrested will apply to your case.

What happens if I commit the crime of Smuggling of Persons in a Disaster area?

SB4 bumps up the felony if you commit the crime in a disaster area. For example, if you commit a third-degree smuggling of persons crime in a disaster area, then it will become a second degree felony. Similarly, if you commit a second degree smuggling of persons crime in a disaster area, then it will become a first degree felony.

In addition, as of January 18, 2024, Governor Greg Abbott declared a disaster area for many counties in Texas. The most common counties we see for human smuggling are:

Of major interest, these counties are all located near the border. And human smugglers use routes along Highway 90 that either cross or link with these counties. This means if police arrest you in one of these counties on or after February 6, 2024, then your punishment range will go up one level.

What is the bottom line on Texas Smuggling of Persons Law update?

We are in uncharted waters. Texas is pushing the legal limits of its human smuggling laws and turning them into immigration crimes. This raises an important question: can Texas pass immigration crimes? This is a political question. And it will be answered in the courts.

Namely, a federal judge will need to decide if SB4 is allowed. Until then, anyone arrested for Smuggling of Persons in Texas will face higher jail terms if a judge or jury finds them guilty of this crime.

Nevertheless, anyone arrested for this crime still has the right to plead not guilty and fight the charge. The major difference is that the stakes are now much higher.

Migrant Smuggling Attorney Genaro R. Cortez. Phone: 210-733-7575.

San Antonio Federal Attorney Genaro Cortez.
San Antonio Criminal Defense Attorney Genaro Cortez.

Genaro R. Cortez is a criminal defense attorney in San Antonio, Texas with over 20 years of experience handling human smuggling cases along the border. This includes taking cases to trial in federal court and winning.

If you have a smuggling of persons charge or if you have questions about the Texas Smuggling of Persons law update, then call today for a free case consult.