Democrats’ procedural challenge halts border policing unit bill in Texas House
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Democrats brought down a proposed bill to create a new state border policing unit late Tuesday night, ending the bill’s shot of passage ahead of an important bill passing deadline.
House Bill 20 by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, would have created a new state unit meant to deter people from crossing the Mexican border by using nondeadly force, with its officers able to “arrest, apprehend or detain persons crossing the Texas-Mexico border unlawfully.”
The bill would have tested the state’s limits on immigration enforcement, which has traditionally fallen under the federal government’s purview.
But after Democrats killed the bill on a technicality near 11 p.m. Tuesday, Schaefer’s legislation could no longer meet a House deadline to receive initial approval by midnight on Thursday because the House had already set its Thursday calendar earlier in the night.
No similar bill was filed in the Senate.
Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, said HB 20 would have devastated law enforcement’s relationships with communities all over the state.
“This bill was not just about the border or migrants, it was a statewide bill that would have been devastating whether you are new Texans or your family has been here for generations,” she said. “It would have emboldened civilian vigilantes to be able to set up checkpoints in our cities.”
Schaefer’s bill can still be revived as amendments to other immigration-related bills. But Neave Criado, who leads the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Democrats will be “vigilant as representatives and people all the way to the end of the session to make sure extremist policies don’t become law.”
Schaefer declined comment after a procedural challenge took down his bill, which he had pitched as a way to help Texas combat the crossing of migrants and dangerous drugs through the Mexican border.
“The serious nature of the fentanyl crisis cannot be overstated,” Schaefer said while introducing the bill Tuesday night.
Shortly after HB 20’s demise, the House approved House Bill 800 to increase penalties for crimes involving smuggling, operating stash houses and evading an arrest or detention. The measure, given initial approval on a 89-56 vote, would also establish 10-year mandatory minimum sentences for certain felony offenses involving the smuggling of people.
Democrats placed themselves in position to sink HB 20 by delaying action on multiple bills throughout the day – a practice known as “chubbing” that is used to avoid controversial topics near the end of legislative deadlines.
Opponents of the bill said it would allow untrained “vigilantes” to go after anyone they perceived to be a migrant — with unit officers given civil and criminal defenses for actions taken while on duty. Neave Criado said that would have exposed Texans of color to racial profiling by the new state force.
“What is to prohibit or stop a Border Protection Unit from setting up their post in Hispanic neighborhoods?” said Rep. Erin Gámez, D-Brownsville, who said her largely Hispanic community would be at particular risk of racial profiling because of its proximity to the border.
Schaefer tried to parry those criticisms by telling Democratic opponents that the unit’s officers would act in a manner consistent with Texas and federal law.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, pounced on that pronouncement, asking Schaefer whether his bill was meant to challenge a previous U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the limits of a state’s enforcement of immigration law. Schaefer did not answer her question, saying the bill’s goal was to protect Americans from drug cartels.
The proposed unit could employ officers who are not trained in law enforcement but would have arrest powers only in counties along the Texas-Mexico border or next to counties along the border.
Under a reworked version of the bill, noncommissioned officers would be given arrest powers outside of the border area only if they had been trained and authorized by the governor and the Public Safety Commission. The bill calls for the Public Safety Commission to develop training for the unit’s officers.
But upon questioning by Democrats, Schaefer refused to detail the kind of training the unit’s officers would receive, saying the new force’s leaders would decide on adequate training.
The bill says the Border Protection Unit, as the new unit would be called, would be subject to legislative funding and would be abolished on Dec. 31, 2030, if the Legislature did not extend its lifespan.
The unit would be led by a chief who is a U.S. citizen and is appointed by the governor. The chief would report directly to the state’s Public Safety Commission and would be independent of the director of the Department of Public Safety.
Democrats, usually critics of DPS border security activity, said the bill was trying to strip away authority from the state police, which Schaefer called the “gold standard” of public safety in the state. Neave Criado criticized the bill for allowing the transfer of personnel, equipment and facilities from DPS, whose officers are all trained law enforcement officers, to the Border Protection Unit, which would have untrained people as noncommissioned officers.
“If DPS was the gold standard, why are we removing funds from their budget?” she said. “If DPS was the gold standard, why are we defunding DPS?”
The unit would also be in charge of building the state’s border wall and other barriers to prevent illegal crossings at the border, as well as securing rights of way, leases, permission, materials and services needed to construct those barriers.
Those responsibilities are now being carried out by DPS troopers and National Guard troops on Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security mission, Operation Lone Star. The mission has cost the state more than $4 billion over the past two years and has experienced a number of serious blunders.
National Guard troops have suffered from inadequate housing, pay problems and a lack of equipment on the mission. During the operation’s start, state troopers were accused of making wrongful arrests and of entrapping migrants by marching them onto private property and then arresting them for trespassing.
Alexa Ura contributed reporting.
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