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Bills Require Warnings for Immigrants About Pleas

Texas doesn't require magistrate judges to tell immigrants how their pleas on misdemeanor charges might affect their immigration status. Legislation that would change that failed two years ago, but the sponsors are back for another try.

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Many immigrants who faced misdemeanor charges last fiscal year were not told how their pleas could affect their immigration status.

That’s because Texas is one of 22 states that don’t require magistrate judges to tell them. Having tried and failed to fix that two years ago, a couple of lawmakers are backing legislation they say would protect the defendants from unknown consequences.

Convictions can throw legal permanent residents off their path toward citizenship. For undocumented immigrants, it can lead to deportation.

Identical bills from state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would require magistrates to inform immigrants about the potential consequences of a “no contest” or “guilty” plea to misdemeanor charges. Some magistrates do already inform those defendants, Anchia said, and his legislation would make them all do it.

But some opponents say changing current law would add to the backlog on court dockets.

“You do not open the door to trying to warn everybody at magistration as to the impact of that if you don’t need to,” said state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler.

Attorneys have a duty to protect their clients, he said. He also contends that the proposal would mean some defendants get warnings about consequences while others do not.

“There are many classes of individuals in Texas who could be negatively affected by a guilty plea to any given crime, [like] teachers and servicemen,” he said.

Anchia said there is already proof that the measure won’t slow the courts.

“It will not create a backlog,” he said. “It’s currently Texas state law for felonies, and it doesn’t seem to slow down felony courts.”

A similar proposal stalled in the House in 2013 after sailing through the Senate on a voice vote. Anchia attributes that to misunderstandings about what he sees as a very simple idea.

According to an analysis of the 2013 proposal by the House Research Organization, the constitution does not require magistrates to tell defendants how certain pleas might affect their immigration status. But, the legislative agency added, “judges are ethically bound to ensure that defendants are aware of the immigration consequences of criminal pleas and convictions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2010’s Padilla v. Kentucky, said attorneys have the obligation to inform their clients but, according to HRO, also said that relying solely on defense lawyers does not guarantee that advice is always given consistently.

Schaefer, repeating an argument made in 2013, also said the proposal would create another way for defendants to appeal if they were convicted.

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