(The Center Square) – The Republican-controlled Texas Senate passed a sweeping omnibus border security bill but it was left to die in the Republican-controlled House.
Because the legislature failed to pass a border security measure, Gov. Greg Abbott listed border security as a legislative priority to be addressed in the first of many special legislative sessions he called.
It passed after House Speaker Dade Phelan’s legislative priority bill, another key border security measure, HB 20, failed in the Republican-controlled House. However, another of Phelan’s legislative priority bills, HB 7, the companion bill to HB 20, passed.
HB 7, filed by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, a former Democrat turned Republican from Rio Grande City in the border county of Starr, became the foundation for the historic border security bill the Senate passed on Wednesday.
Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, chair of the Senate Border Security Committee, shepherded the bill through the Senate. It incorporates provisions from several bills that passed the Senate but didn’t move in the House, key provisions of HB 20 and legislative priorities of Gov. Greg Abbott.
One signature feature of the bill is the creation of a dedicated Border Force Unit within the Department of Public Safety run by the Texas Rangers. The new unit would be responsible for nearly every aspect of border security on state land, including surveillance and interdiction efforts, and be comprised of specifically trained personnel, Birdwell said in a statement.
Shifting to a dedicated border security unit “will take the burden off of National Guard members who have been helping with border security, but are being deployed for extended periods of time away from their family and jobs,” he said.
Another signature feature of the bill is the creation of a new state trespassing statute, incorporated from SB 2424, filed by Birdwell. It creates a new state offense making it illegal to enter Texas from a foreign country, a legislative priority of Abbott’s. The new statute enables state and local law enforcement to enforce state law, not federal immigration law.
It also incorporates provisions from SB 600, also filed by Birdwell, to increase the minimum sentencing for human smuggling to 10 years, another legislative priority of Abbott’s.
Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, questioned the effectiveness of the bill and the state's approach to border security, noting that billions of taxpayer dollars already have been spent and record illegal southern border crossings continued. During floor debate, he asked Birdwell, "We're spending a lot of money, why do we need to create a whole new border force unit? Is it the author's position that our current force structure, that includes DPS and the National Guard, is insufficient, is it inadequate: is the mission failing?"
Birdwell replied that Texas’ efforts have made it harder for foreign nationals to illegally enter Texas, pushing illegal crossings west, as The Center Square has previously reported. Westward movement, he said, was “an indicator of the price we are making the cartels pay in moving the commodity of human beings and drugs into this country, and they're having to make a decision to go elsewhere to do that."
Unprecedented efforts, including the legislature allocating over $4 billion last session and more than $4 billion this session to border security, was in response “to the increasing amount of people and drugs coming over the border,” Birdwell said.
The bill also creates a support mechanism for local courts inundated with increased border-related cases and authorizes the governor to develop and execute agreements with Mexican governors. Abbott was the first Texas governor to do so one year ago.
SB 1900, filed by Birdwell to designate drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, also passed the House and Senate this week. SB 1900 builds on Abbott’s executive order to designate cartels as FTOs under state law. The designation allows law enforcement and prosecutors to pursue higher penalties, including related to those delivering controlled substances or drugs or operating a stash house. It also allows FTOs to be added to law enforcement agency intelligence databases and local entities to seek public nuisance claims against FTOs operating in their communities.
SB 1133 also passed the legislature, which creates a mechanism for landowners to seek compensation for damages caused to agricultural land by illegal foreign nationals. It was sent to the governor on May 19; he’s expected to sign it.
Texas Public Policy Foundation CEO Greg Sindelar praised HB 7’s passage, arguing it “offers new, innovative and assertive state solutions to protect Texans … and sends a strong message to Mexican drugs cartels: Texas does not tolerate human and drug trafficking.”
In a letter to Birdwell shared with The Center Square, Kinney County Attorney Brent Smith said HB 7 “creates a legal framework that would assist future litigation in the federal courts surrounding the constitutional right for Texas to act in the absence of the federal government and its failure to uphold its constitutional guarantees under Article IV of the U.S. Constitution.”
He also said the “tools the legislature created during this legislative session to confront the border crisis will ultimately determine the fate of Texas.”