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Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
The Texas House on Wednesday night approved two immigration bills, including one that would appropriate more than $1 billion for additional border barriers and another that would increase penalties for human smugglers.
Lawmakers were a few hours into debating House Bill 4, which would empower police officers to apprehend, arrest or send back migrants who cross the border illegally, when state Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, made a motion to block new amendments, a rare move used to end a debate sooner.
After that motion passed, House Speaker Dade Phelan called a break as members posed parliamentary inquiries about the motion and the House stood at ease for hours. When they returned, Phelan called for the dozens of pending amendments to be heard.
State Rep. Armando Lucio Walle, D-Houston, confronted Harris during a break, saying it’s unfair for Republicans to cut off debate when they’re proposing legislation that “hurts our community.”
“It hurts us to our fucking core,” Walle said, according to a video posted on social media. “And you don’t understand that, you don’t live in our skin. And that’s what pisses me off.”
The package of bills continues the state’s recent push to deter illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border, which has been a priority for Gov. Greg Abbott. The state has spent billions, and lawmakers are proposing to spend $1.5 billion more, as part of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.
U.S. Border Patrol agents have had a historically high number of encounters with migrants on the southern border in recent years: 1.7 million in fiscal year 2021, a record topped the next year when agents recorded 2.2 million encounters. In fiscal year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, the number dropped slightly to 2 million encounters.
HB 4, sponsored by state Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, would create a new state crime for illegally entering Texas from Mexico, authorize state police to arrest violators and allow officers to return migrants to a port of entry and order them to return to Mexico.
Under the bill, a first-time offender could be convicted of a misdemeanor and be punished by up to 180 days behind bars. The penalty would jump to a felony punishable by up to two years in prison if the person has repeatedly entered the country illegally.
The bill is another attempt by lawmakers to empower Texas law enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws, despite rulings by federal courts that the federal government has sole jurisdiction over immigration matters.
Spiller said his bill doesn’t preempt federal law and only enforces laws already in place.
“There is nothing unfair about ordering someone back from where they came if they arrived here illegally,” Spiller said.
State Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, said she’s concerned that the bill could lead to officers mistakenly arresting U.S. citizens who live on the border if they don’t have proof of citizenship handy.
Spiller said that scenario would seem unlikely because a U.S. citizen hasn’t been wrongfully removed from the country.
However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the research arm of the U.S. Congress, has found that immigration agents have “arrested 674, detained 121, and removed 70 potential U.S. citizens” between 2015 and 2020, according to a July 2021 report.
Neave Criado also said HB 4 could be thwarted by Mexico if officials there refuse to accept non-Mexican migrants returned by Texas law enforcement.
Spiller said that if that becomes an issue, Abbott will “be able to work that out” with the governors of the four Mexican states that border Texas.
But like in the U.S., Mexico’s immigration policies are set by its federal government, not governors.
House approves more border wall money
The House voted 84-61 Wednesday to approve House Bill 6, sponsored by state Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, which would appropriate $1.5 billion to fund Abbott’s efforts to build border barriers along different parts of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border.
The one-page bill says the state would pay five contractors to erect an additional 50 miles of border barriers and maintain the currently planned 40 miles of barrier, according to testimony provided by officials with the governor’s office.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
The state has issued $1.5 billion in contracts since September 2021 to build the original 40 miles of border barrier; as of August, contractors had erected 10 miles of it in different parts of the border, including in Starr, Cameron, Val Verde and Webb counties.
If the bill is approved, the state could have about 100 miles of border barrier by September 2026 — on top of barriers built by the federal government. But acquiring the land remains a challenge because most of it is privately owned and the state would need to secure easements to erect the barriers on private land.
“Our goal in the Legislature is to make sure that our law enforcement has all the tools in the toolbox that they need to secure our border, and this is one of them,” Jetton said.
Jetton said the bill also would allow the state to also purchase more floating barriers to place on the Rio Grande. Earlier this year, Abbott ordered a 1,000-foot-long string of buoys, separated by serrated saw blades and supporting a submerged mesh net, to be installed in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass.
A federal judge ordered Texas to remove the barrier because it didn’t ask the federal government’s permission to place it in international waters. An appeals court later granted Texas’ request to leave the barrier in place until the courts make a final ruling.
Stricter sentences for human smuggling approved
In a 90-57 vote, the House also passed Senate Bill 4, sponsored by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City. The measure would increase the minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house.
The bill was previously approved by the Senate and now goes to the governor’s office for Abbott’s consideration.
Democrats said the definition of smuggling in the bill is too broad and could lead to law enforcement officers targeting people giving rides to friends or family who happen to be undocumented to places such as a church or a doctor’s office.
They also raised concerns that the bill imposes a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, pointing out that more serious felonies have lower minimum sentences — first-degree felonies like murder carry a 5-year minimum sentence, for example.
But Guillen said the state needs to send a “strong message” that people smuggling immigrants into Texas will face stiff punishment.
“What we’re trying to do with this bill is deter smuggling,” he said. “We’re throwing the book at him.”
Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said the bill will not deter the criminal organizations that drive human smuggling on the border.
“Ultimately, if your goal is to nail the big-time traffickers and smugglers with these provisions, you are not going to get them, this law will not touch them,” Moody said. “What this law will get is the 20-year-old kid who took $200 from the kind of person you don’t say no to anyway, to drive someone from one side of town to the other.”