The Texas Senate moved the GOP’s top immigration bill, which would create a new state border police force, closer to being passed early Wednesday morning.
House Bill 7 would also make it illegal for migrants to enter the state anywhere other than a port of entry. Human smugglers would have to serve a minimum of 10 years in prison, and the state would give $100 million to border towns for new detention centers, courts, security, and economic development projects.
It is the most sweeping of a group of Republican bills that aim to make the state’s reaction to the record number of people crossing the southern border of Texas tougher. It also tests how far a state can go when it comes to enforcing immigration rules, which have usually been the responsibility of the federal government.
Nearly 16 hours after senators walked into the room on Tuesday, HB 7 was first passed by the Senate at about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. The vote was 19-12, and senators voted according to their party affiliation. The chamber still needs to give the bill its final approval before it can go back to the House, where lawmakers can accept the changes made by the Senate or try to find a middle ground.
“House Bill 7 will improve border security operations, give law enforcement and prosecutors more tools, and make the Texas border area safer,” said state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Gradbury, when he first explained his bill after midnight.
In earlier drafts of the bill, the border police unit was heavily criticized because it wanted to let civilians serve as officers. Critics said this would have let unlicensed vigilantes patrol the Texas border.
Early on Wednesday morning, Birdwell told other lawmakers that the new Texas Border Force would have both sworn-in police agents and other types of workers. He said that only commissioned police officers would be able to make arrests or carry guns because of the bill.
State Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, proposed the change to explain the roles of the two types of workers. He said that noncommissioned employees could drive people who were arrested by the unit and help with other logistics.
In the House version of the bill, which had been changed so that only qualified peace officers could be part of the new border unit, this was not the case. In that form of the bill, the unit could only work in border towns where county commissioners had given their permission.
The tweet below verifies the news:
Hosted fellow Governors in Austin yesterday for a briefing on Texas’ historic border security mission.
I urged them to join Idaho & Florida in support of our response.
Biden's open border policies have made EVERY state a border state.
Together, we can protect our nation. pic.twitter.com/NzBJ4bDz4O
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) May 23, 2023
The Senate’s version of the bill, which was passed early Wednesday morning, took away limits on where the unit could work. This means that its officers can now work anywhere in the state.
In addition to giving the state’s new border force more power, HB 7 would make it illegal to cross the U.S.-Mexico border outside of a port of entry.
Getting into Texas in this way is already against the law, but people who ask for refuge are dealt with differently by federal agents than other people caught crossing the border. Most of the time, though, when state police make arrests, they don’t take asylum claims into account.
Opponents of the bill are worried that even more people who want asylum won’t be able to give a positive case by asking for asylum or giving another legal reason to be in the United States.
They were also worried that the new 10-year minimum sentence for smuggling people would catch mostly young, poor Americans who are paid a lot by drug gangs to drive migrants across the country after they cross the border.
Even though the federal government is in charge of immigration rules, Texas leaders have found creative ways to use their power in the area during the state’s years-long crackdown on illegal immigration.
As the number of migrants began to overwhelm Texas border towns in 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott sent state police to border counties to arrest people on state trespassing charges who were thought to have crossed the border illegally.
Since then, the low-level charge has been used to send thousands of migrants to Texas jails. Most of the time, they were caught on rail cars or walking across private land near the border.
The “catch-and-jail” method of criminal justice for migrants in Texas has been controversial from the beginning. There were a lot of lawsuits and a review by the U.S. Department of Justice because of wrongful arrests and illegal detentions, as well as claims of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices.
For crimes linked to immigration, many men have spent months in Texas prisons that have been turned into state jails. They haven’t had access to lawyers or a chance to see a judge.
With the new law, trespassing would no longer be a way to get around the rules. People who police think crossed the border illegally could be arrested for that crime alone, but Birdwell said over and over again Wednesday morning that only people caught at the border would be arrested.
Still, the arrests would be mostly the same as charges for illegal immigrants. Most people who were arrested would be sent to the Texas prisons that are used as state jails for immigration crimes.
Birdwell said that police would still mostly only arrest single men and send women and families to the U.S. Border Patrol. State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said that this policy “sounds like selective enforcement,” which is a term used in lawsuits against discriminatory tactics.
A lot of Abbott’s trespassing arrests have been thrown out because the people who were arrested said it was unfair that he only arrested single men and sent women and families to the U.S. Border Patrol.
Hinojosa said, “This is not the way to try to solve this problem.”
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HB 7 includes text that says even if one part of the bill is found to be unconstitutional by the courts, the rest of the bill can still go into effect. This is likely because the bill anticipates legal and constitutional challenges over federal and state jurisdiction.
Birdwell said, “I don’t think we’re following immigration law because it’s our job, after prosecuting them for a state crime, to turn them over to the immigration authorities.” “But the federal government could decide to go after Texas, and if they do, I’m happy to stand up and defend this.”
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