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Texas Senate moves forward with border and immigration bills, despite House absence

Venezuelan migrant José Albornoz, 40, shortly after crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas in September.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for NPR
Venezuelan migrant José Albornoz, 40, shortly after crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas in September.

The Texas Senate moved forward with its border-security legislation on Wednesday. That’s the measure has no place to go as long as the Texas House remains away from the Capitol.

The Texas Senate passed a trio of border-security and immigration-enforcement bills on Wednesday that include legislation designated by Gov. Greg Abbott as a priority during the current special session of the Legislature.

However, the upper chamber’s work could be little more than symbolic, as the Texas House gaveled out last week after passing a property-tax bill, along with legislation that would increase penalties for human smuggling and operating a stash house.

With the House absent, the measures passed by the Senate have no way of clearing their final hurdles and becoming law.

The bills passed Wednesday include House Bill 2, by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, which would create a minimum 10-year sentence for people convicted of human smuggling or operating a stash house. That topic, along with decreasing property taxes, was included on Abbott’s short to-do list he wanted lawmakers to address during the special session.

The Senate initially rejected the House’s version of HB 2 after its Senate sponsor, state Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, said an amendment added to the bill had unintended consequences. The amendment lowered penalties for people convicted on those charges if they could prove they were a relative through blood or marriageto the migrants being smuggled. Flores called that too broad because it could possibly include very distant relatives. Flores also said the House amendment could lessen penalties for smugglers who carried a firearm or were getting paid for their actions.

Flores stripped the amendment but later worked with Democrats on a new amendment that would tighten which family members could claim the defense. Democrats also agreed to language that would exclude a person from using the family defense if they were caught in possession of a firearm or were profiting from the transport.

The bill passed 27-2 and Democrats lauded Flores for his willingness to work across the aisle to improve the legislation. But that could be the limit to the senators’ celebration — if the current stalemate between the House and Senate continues, it’s likely they’ll be called back yet again to address the issue.

Disagreement between the Texas House and Senate

The chambers’ dispute is due to differences in the proposed property-tax legislation each passed last week. The House gaveled out after it advanced its version, leaving the Senate with nothing but a “take-it-or-leave-it” option on the bill. The Senate has repeatedly balked at that offer.

If the issue isn’t resolved, HB 2 looks to be a side casualty of the infighting — although Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told reporters Tuesday he hoped the House would come back before the current special session ends. By law, a special session can only last 30 days, but the governor is free to call as many as he’d like.

“They can come back. I encourage them to come back,” Patrick said.

The Senate recessed until Thursday morning and House leadership has not indicated a willingness to return to Austin to finalize the unfinished business.

On Wednesday, the Senate also passed two bills that were not part of Abbott’s special session call. Senate Bill 2 by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R- Granbury, would make it a state crime to enter Texas from Mexico illegally. Senate Bill 8, also by Birdwell, would establish the Texas Border Force under the direction of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Those bills passed on party-line votes of 17-12 with two Republican lawmakers excused from the chamber. Like HB 2, those measures are also stalled because the members of the Texas House aren’t at the state Capitol.

On Wednesday afternoon, Patrick said the Senate will continue to work while the House takes its break.

"The Texas Senate is in Austin working diligently to address the priorities of Texans, including these critical bills. The Senate will pass these bills over and over again in every special session until the Texas House returns from their vacation," he said.

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

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Julián Aguilar