SENATE PANEL TAKES UP OMNIBUS BORDER SECURITY BILL
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Border Security Committee took up its version of the session's sweeping border security bill Wednesday, changing one of the more controversial provisions while incorporating a number of measures previously passed in the Senate into the bill. Border security has been a major issue this session, with lawmakers looking to fill in the gaps for a federal government they say has dropped the ball on securing the border with Mexico. They are restricted in this regard by court decisions putting authority for immigration enforcement entirely within the purview of the federal government. HB 7, sponsored by committee chair and Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell, would increase state activity to deter illegal crossings.
There were 2.4 million encounters between migrants making illegal land crossings and law enforcement officials in 2022, the highest number ever. Also crossing the border are massive amounts of the dangerous opioid fentanyl. Immigration and border security consistently rank among the top concerns in polls of Texas voters.
The bill's major new provision would be the creation of a dedicated Border Force Unit within the Department of Safety, run by the Texas Rangers. This unit would be composed of specifically-trained personnel drawn from a pool of candidates with significant border operations experience. Candidates would go through an abbreviated academy process and receive additional training in border security related tactics and operations. "We gave great consideration on how to ensure…that we have trained individuals that are performing a duty, not simply individuals who are set aside," said Birdwell. By shifting to a dedicated border security unit, he added, the state will take the burden off of National Guard members who have been helping with border security, but are being deployed for extended periods of time away from their family and jobs. The unit would be involved in almost every aspect of security, from surveillance, to command and control, to interdiction, and more. Removed from the bill is the creation of a less formal task force that was previously amended in the House. "HB 7 also had a version of HB 20's Border Protection Unit," said Birdwell. "While we understand the intent of creating it, we identified the significant issue with the structure and chain of command it proposed."
The bill also incorporates a number of provisions already passed though the Senate in other bills. HB 7 would create a new state trespassing offense, making it illegal to enter the state from a foreign country. This means, said Birdwell, that officers would be enforcing a state trespassing statute rather than a federal immigration law. It also defines drug cartels as terrorist organizations and give law enforcement and prosecutors more tools to go after their members. The bill also includes Senate language that creates a mechanism whereby landowners can be compensated for damage caused to agricultural land by crossing migrants.
El Paso Senator Cesar Blanco questioned effectiveness of the state's approach, noting how much the state has spent - more than $4.6 billion - over the last 10 years while still seeing record crossings. "We're spending a lot of money, why do we need to create a whole new border force unit?" he asked Birdwell. "Is it the author's position that our current force structure, that includes DPS and the National Guard, is insufficient, is it inadequate: is the mission failing?" Birdwell disagreed, pointing out that making it harder for migrants to cross into Texas has pushed crossings westward. "For the first time in I think 35 or 40 years, Arizona now has more penetrations than Texas does," he said. "That is an indicator of the price we are making the cartels pay in moving the commodity of human beings and drugs into this country, and they're having to make a decision to go elsewhere to do that." The increasing costs, said Birdwell, are in response to the increasing amount of people and drugs coming over the border.
The Senate will reconvene Friday, May 19 at 11 a.m.