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Texas Republicans unveil sweeping border proposals to raise state-based enforcement

Migrants trudge along the border fence to a waiting bus after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas.
John Burnett
Migrants trudge along the border fence to a waiting bus after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas.

State Democrats immediately criticized the border and immigration proposals, signaling a bruising battle ahead. “House Republicans have been warned,” one key Democrat cautioned.

The battle lines at the State Capitol have been drawn after Texas Republicans unveiled a slew of border security and immigration proposals that Democrats are calling some of the most extreme in the state’s history.

Perhaps the most controversial among them is House Bill 20 — legislation that, if passed, would form a new state law enforcement unit on the border with broad powers of enforcement, including certain immunity for its members.

Border security is a top priority for the state’s Republican majority and Gov. Greg Abbott, who launched the controversial Operation Lone Star two years ago after President Biden took office. The state-led effort has cost billions and has deployed thousands of Texas Department of Public Safety and National Guard units to the border.

As laid out by Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) in HB 20, the so-called Border Protection Unit “would be headquartered along the border and prioritize the recruitment of individuals who are either residents of or have significant experience with border communities to staff the operation.” The unit’s duties would include building and maintaining a border wall, along with deterring illegal immigration and drug smuggling, possibly through using non-lethal force to “repel migrants,” according to language in the bill.

House Speaker Dade Phelan said the proposed unit would eventually eliminate the need for the current roster of Texas DPS and National Guard troops who have been deployed under Operation Lone Star.

The bill language states that a unit chief would be appointed by the governor and oversee operations, including staffing. Eligible members would include current peace officers and other “law-abiding citizens without a felony conviction(s)”. The bill would also provide for immunity from criminal or civil liabilities for members.

Democrats immediately denounced the proposal as illegal and racist.

“I take the Speaker at his word that the demands of this Session require all of us to work together and collaboratively to deliver for Texas families,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said in a statement. “Past sessions make clear that extreme legislation like this is the most divisive issue we take up in the House. HB 20 is a tinderbox waiting to explode that will leave this Session in flames. House Republicans have been warned."

The Texas Civil Rights Project also blasted the proposal.

“This bill is the most dangerous proposal we have ever seen on border issues. It endangers the lives of countless migrants and Texans, threatens the integrity of our immigration system, and violates federal law - it cannot and absolutely should not be passed by the Texas Legislature,” said “Roberto Lopez, the senior advocacy Manager for the Beyond Borders program at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

A Legislative Border Safety Oversight Committee that would oversee the unit. would be created through separate legislation authored by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, a Rio Grande City Republican.

Late Friday Schaefer responded to criticism that the unit would be comprised of a band of vigilantes.

“The Texas Border Protection Unit will be an organization of professional men and women hired [and] trained under the authority of the Dept. of Public Safety to protect Texans. Many will be licensed peace officers, others trained and specifically authorized by the Governor to make lawful arrests. Exactly as the Nat’l Guard & DPS operate now under Operation Lone Star,” he posted on Twitter.

Lopez later told The Texas Newsroom that organizations like his will need to determine the best way to fight the legislation if it becomes law. A lawsuit to stop the bill could ultimately lead to a battle before the United States Supreme Court, which Lopez said would be a gamble given the conservative majority on the current bench.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some of the major provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070, which sought to expand state-based immigration. The court ruled that most provisions of that law were preempted by federal statute.

But times have changed, he said.

“We need to make that that very challenging and difficult decision on whether or not we want to risk upsetting or removing prior precedent that was beneficial to our communities,” he said.

The filing comes as lawmakers have already heard testimony from department heads regarding the 2024-2025 budget. The House and Senate versions of the budget both include about $4.6 billion for border security. The bulk of that money — $2.25 billion — would go to the Texas Military Department, while about $1.2 billion would go to the DPS. But Abbott’s office has requested about $1 billion, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

On the Texas Senate side, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday cheered legislation authored by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, that would create a new offense in the state for entering Texas illegally. The enforcement wouldn’t be limited to the border region and instead apply statewide.

Under current law, local law enforcement agencies cannot prohibit their officers from asking a person who is arrested or detained their immigration status. But the inquiry is made during an interaction with the office for a separate reason.

It’s unclear what probably cause an officer would need to make the arrest under Birdwell’s proposal.

Punishment would be a year for a first offense, two years for a second offense and up to life in prison for convicted felons.

“In addition, Sen. Brian Birdwell has filed SB 2424 so the State of Texas is empowered to truly protect our border, as the Federal Government has completely abdicated its constitutional responsibility,” Patrick said in a statement.

The bill will likely be referred to the Senate Border Security Committee, which Birdwell chairs.

Lopez said the Senate proposal is also alarming because he said it would turn every local peace officer into a Border Patrol or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent. It’s unclear from the bill’s language if local law enforcement would be able to enter private property on or near the border, as Border Patrol agents are currently allowed to do.

“When you pair these bills together, it becomes very much like a surveillance state against immigrants or anyone who might be suspected of being an immigrant,” Lopez said.

There have also been bills filed to do away with a law a 2001 that allows some undocumented students to pay instate tuition rates at public universities. The issue has been debated in the past and has pitted Democrats and some moderate Republicans against the far-right flank of the GOP. The proposals are HB 859 by state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, and Hb 1117, by state Rep. Teresa Leo-Wilson, R-Galveston.

Another bill filed late Friday by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, would ban undocumented students from attending public universities outright. The proposal is included in legislation that would also ban citizens of Iran, China, North Korea and Russia from attending public colleges or universities.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.