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Border bills make headway as Texas Legislature enters home stretch

 A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle sits at Gate 42, a section of the border fence, in East El Paso.
Julian Aguilar / The Texas Newsroom
A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle sits at Gate 42, a section of the border fence, in East El Paso.

House Democrats might have sidelined a priority piece of border-security legislation last week, but other key proposals look poised to pass the Texas Legislature during the final weeks of the session.

Border security continues to be a priority for the state’s Republican leadership. Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which sends troops to the border and enforces certain immigration laws, continues more than two years after its inception. And the Legislature is close to approving more than $4.5 billion in additional border security funding before lawmakers gavel out at the end of the month.

Several stand-alone proposals are also on track to pass before Memorial Day, the last day of the 140-day session.

Expanded powers for U.S. Border Patrol agents

A Senate bill that would expand the powers of U.S. Border Patrol agents in Texas was sent to the governor’s office for his signature on Friday, May 12. Under current law, Border Patrol agents are only allowed to detain people suspected of state crimes while they await transfer to a state peace officer. Senate bill 602, authored by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would expand the search-and-seizure and arresting powers of Border Patrol agents and allow them to enforce state laws if a suspected felony occurs at a port of entry or a checkpoint.

The bill as filed included enforcement of misdemeanor crimes, but that provision was removed after lawmakers said it would strain agents.

Interstate compact bill

Senate bill 1403 would create an interstate compact between border states for border security purposes. The legislation, by state Sen. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, would permit Texas to share with other states resources to build a physical or technological barrier on the southern border, and share intelligence for other border enforcement efforts “to ensure the protection of personnel and property.”

The bill passed the Texas House last week after it was amended to give the governor a choice on whether to enter the compact, and the Texas Senate approved the change Tuesday.

Still pending

The Senate Border Affairs Committee on Thursday will hear House bill 7. Authored by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, HB 7 would create the so-called Border Protection Unit, a law enforcement agency solely for border security purposes.

The unit was originally part of House bill 20, but that legislation was derailed last week after Democrats successfully invoked a procedural move known as a point of order. The BPU legislation was successfully attached to HB7 later, but Democrats made several changes to the bill before it passed the full House. Changes include a requirement that members of the BPU be commissioned peace officers, and a requirement that county commissioners courts approve the BPU before it operates in their jurisdictions. It’s unclear if those changes will be stripped after the Senate debates the bill.

HB 7 would also establish grant programs for local governments to build border security infrastructure, fund local courts on the border to help prosecute smuggling and illegal entry crimes, and encourage higher education institutions to create programs that recruit or train people to enter into law enforcement.

Also on deck before the Senate committee Thursday is House bill 800, also by Guillen, which would mandate a 10-year prison sentence for people convicted of smuggling immigrants. HB 800 would also increase the punishment for operating a stash house to a third-degree felony, which comes with a prison sentence of two to 10 years.

A coalition of immigrant rights’ groups is encouraging people to attend the hearing and speak out against HB 7 and HB 800, which they argue would “criminalize immigrants and border communities.”

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar