McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A controversial immigration bill that would allow the State of Texas to create its own border police force, impose stricter penalties on asylum-seekers who cross from Mexico illegally, and set up checkpoints closer to the border, has moved closer to passage in Austin.
Late Wednesday, the Texas Senate passed HB 7 on a third reading, despite objections from three state senators who represent the South Texas border.
The bill — which has undergone massive changes so far this Legislature — has already passed the Texas House. Now it is up to its original author, Texas Rep. Ryan Guillen, a Republican from Rio Grande City, to decide whether to accept it with the current modifications.
If Guillen accepts, and the House has enough votes to pass it, then it goes directly to the Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican who has indicated he will sign it.
If Guillen does not approve, a conference committee comprised of lawmakers from both sides will work on tweaking the measure, and any modifications will then go back to both chambers for review and votes before going to the governor, Border Report has learned.
Migrant advocates say they are worried and say this legislation imposes the strictest measures on those who cross the border, as well as threatens the safety of border communities.
“HB 7 is probably the most dangerous piece of legislation that we’ve seen on border issues. It is the harshest,” Roberto Lopez, senior advocacy manager for the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, told Border Report on Thursday.
“It would create mandatory minimums for an individual who might be caught with an undocumented person in their vehicle,” Lopez said. “It would create a whole entire new police agency to patrol and surveil border communities like those in Brownsville, McAllen, all across the Rio Grande.”
Lopez has been following the legislation in Austin as it has evolved and changed and taken on immigration-related components from other bills that were voted out during the 5-month-old session.
Lopez testified against the measure on May 19 before the five-member Texas Senate Border Committee, where it passed 3 to 2.
Lopez says the measure, as currently written, also would allow the state to set up border checkpoints within 30 miles of the Rio Grande, and he says the Texas Border Force would be created using a base of 50 Texas DPS troopers from Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, and the unit would be under the full command of the Texas Rangers. He says other peace officers from other agencies also would be accepted into the force.
It would create a whole entire new police agency to patrol and surveil border communities like those in Brownsville, McAllen, all across the Rio Grande.”
Roberto Lopez, Texas Civil Rights Project
Texas Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican from Granbury, who sponsored Guillen’s bill in the Senate, says it is necessary for the state to maintain law and order at the Texas border.
“There are fundamentally two problems with the situation that we face: Mexico’s government is complicit in not controlling their territory, and the federal government is maliciously malfeasance and not performing its duties faithfully. There are three governments involved in this decision. The Mexican government and federal government are failing. Texas will not,” Birdwell said speaking on the Republican-led Senate floor late Wednesday evening where it passed by a vote of 19-11.
State Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen, is on the Senate Border Committee and voted against the bill on Thursday, but it passed the committee by a vote of 3 to 2 and went to the full Senate.
On Wednesday night, Hinojosa gave an impassioned speech urging his Senate colleagues not to pass HB 7.
He said when he was 7 years old picking tomatoes in the South Texas border town of McCook, he and his mother were picked up by a Border Patrol agent and they were both deported to Mexico for a year. Hinojosa was a U.S. citizen, but his mother was not.
“I got deported, too, even though I was a U.S. citizen,” Hinojosa said.
He said if HB 7 becomes law then he fears the state’s border force would patrol and unfairly target border residents who could also get mistaken and sent south of the Rio Grande.
“It’s not workable. It’s not practical. And it really creates real challenges for us in trying to arrest any person that comes across in improper entry, as you will, and trying to separate those families,” Hinojosa said.
Democratic state Sens. Judith Zaffirini, of the border city of Laredo, and Cesar Blanco, who represents El Paso, also spoke out against the bill Wednesday, saying it will harm border communities.
“It seems to me that one solution after another proposed by people who live far far away from the border, never ever will cut it. The solution will never be realized until the people who live along the border and who understand the problems are heard. We have spoken out we have written but our words are meaningless. They fall on deaf ears,” Zaffirini said.
Border Report has reached out to Guillen for comments on what his plans are for the bill, but he has not responded. This story will be updated if additional information is received.