With Texas House adjourned, Senate takes bigger swing at border enforcement and human smuggling

"With Texas House adjourned, Senate takes bigger swing at border enforcement and human smuggling" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Senate passed three immigration bills Wednesday that would create a border police force, make it a state crime to cross the Texas-Mexico border illegally and raise the minimum punishment for people convicted of smuggling migrants.

Two of these bills were not part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s priority list for this special session, and all three bills have little chance of becoming law because the House adjourned last week after passing a different version of the anti-smuggling bill.

When the two chambers pass different versions of legislation, they’re required to work out their differences before bills can move to the governor’s desk. Without the House in session to complete the legislative process, the Senate chose to take a bigger swing with its border-related bills than what the governor requested or what the House passed.

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Both chambers had bigger plans for border enforcement during the regular legislative session that ended last month. House Speaker Dade Phelan announced a list of priority legislation that included a proposal to create a state law enforcement unit of officers empowered, with the help of civilians, to "repel" and arrest migrants crossing the border illegally and return them to Mexico. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, also had announced he backed Senate legislation that would have made it a state crime for people to cross into Texas illegally.

The proposals would have tested the boundaries of the state’s ability to enforce immigration law, which courts have historically ruled falls under federal purview. Immigrant rights advocates worried that the new state unit could violate migrants’ civil rights.

But the bills eventually died in the regular session.

Abbott — who has been critical of the Biden administration for years, blaming the president for the record-breaking number of Border Patrol apprehensions at the southern border — then called for a special session and gave lawmakers two priorities: a bill lowering property taxes and a scaled-down border security bill focused on increasing the penalties for smuggling people or running a stash house.

The Texas House acted quickly and in one day approved House Bill 2 by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, to increase the minimum sentence for someone convicted of smuggling people or operating a stash house to 10 years under state law. That would drop to five years if the defendant cooperates with police or if a person convicted of smuggling is related to the person being smuggled, but it could jump to a minimum of 15 years under certain circumstances.

The House then unexpectedly adjourned and sent the bill, along with a property tax bill, to the Senate, which was put in the position of either accepting the House bills as is or letting the special session end without passing anything.

Cait Wittman, a spokesperson for Phelan, on Tuesday said, "We encourage the Senate to follow the House’s lead so that Texans can have the property tax relief and the secure border they deserve."

Instead, senators chose to resurrect some of the pieces of the legislation that died during the regular session.

Senate Bill 2 would make it a state crime to illegally cross the Texas-Mexico border between ports of entry. It’s also a federal crime, and illegal crossings are typically enforced by federal agencies like the Border Patrol. Senate Bill 8 would create a border force made up of commissioned law enforcement officers to target smuggling of migrants and drugs along the Texas-Mexico border.

"It is my hope that the House will be able to come back and get this out to the governor’s desk in this special session," said Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton. "I’m always an optimist, but if not, we’ll be back again" for a second special session.

Phelan has not given any indication that he plans to bring the House back into session, though the chamber adjourned in a way that allows it to still handle administrative matters for the remainder of the special session. And on Wednesday afternoon, state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, gaveled the mostly empty lower chamber in to formally receive the bills the Senate passed earlier in the day. Leach then quickly gaveled out without taking any formal action on the bills.

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said during a debate on the Senate floor Wednesday that senators had previously approved a bill with the provision of lowering the minimum sentence to five years if a smuggler was smuggling a relative. He asked what had changed.

Flores, who brought the anti-smuggling bill to the Senate floor, said he does not agree with lowering the minimum sentence to five years simply because a smuggler is related to the migrant being smuggled. Flores said when he voted for the bill during the regular session, he missed that provision in the bill.

"On this particular case I did not read it, and the repercussions of it, as I should have," he said.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/07/texas-senate-border-bills-immigration/.

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