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Border-enforcement bill at Texas Capitol sparks debate over states' rights and 'invasion' rhetoric

 Opponents of a state-based immigration bill, HB20, rally outside of a state building at the Texas Capitol on April 12, 2023.
Sergio Martinez-Beltran
Opponents of a state-based immigration bill, HB 20, rally outside of a state building at the Texas Capitol on Wednesday.

Dozens of legal experts and civil rights advocates descended on the state Capitol on Wednesday to speak against immigration legislation during a heated hearing where Democrats and Republicans clashed over state sovereignty and whether Texas is being “invaded” by people crossing the border.

House Bill 20, by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, would form a new state law enforcement unit on the border with broad powers and certain immunity for its members. If passed, the legislation would create a so-called Border Protection Unit headquartered along the border. The unit would include members who are current peace officers, but also be open to any citizens who haven’t been convicted of a felony.

The Border Protection 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.

Schaefer justified the legislation Wednesday by arguing Texas is in imminent danger due to the near-record number of apprehensions at the state’s southern border.

“The simple truth is that the ongoing acts of aggression by violent transnational criminal cartels are putting the lives of Texans and Americans in imminent danger,” he told the House Committee on State Affairs. “How many people will die from fentanyl poisoning? How many more landowners will suffer damage to property from trespassers and smugglers?”

Opponents of the measure are concerned the unit would be staffed, in part, by civilians who are untrained and possibly eager to take part in a border operation that promotes racial profiling and the harassment of minorities.

Schaefer said his legislation would allow peace officers and National Guard members who are currently on the border to return home or to their regular duties, saying new members of the border unit would alleviate the need for their deployment. Under Operation Lone Star, a state-led effort started by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2021, there are currently thousands of additional officers and guard members on the border. The operation has cost Texas billions of dollars since its inception.

In frequently intense exchanges, Democratic committee members pressed Schaefer on whether the legislation conflicts with federal law, since the federal government has purview over immigration policies.

State Rep. Anchia, D-Dallas, asked Schaefer directly if his legislation was meant to tee up a battle before the United States Supreme Court, with hopes the conservative majority would overturn a key immigration ruling.

“Is the purpose of HB20 to enact state border protection laws and challenge the ruling of Arizona v the United States that states can’t step in and pass these laws?” Anchia asked. 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.

“The intent of this bill is to assert the authority of the state of Texas under the United States Constitution,” Schaefer responded, often repeating the phrase after being pressed by Anchia, who called the Republican “cagey and coy” for not replying directly.

Hundreds of people signed up to testify on the bill before the committee. Some speaking in its support told lawmakers there is nothing in federal law prohibiting Texas from defending its borders.

“Although the Constitution imposed the primary responsibility for the protection of our borders with the federal government, it does not thereby strip the states of the power to defend themselves — despite the Supreme Court’s erroneous decision in [Arizona] v the United States in 2012,” said Joshua Trevino, the chief of intelligence and research at the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

But opponents told the panel it’s a colossal waste of state resources and a continuation of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star. That’s despite Rep. Schaefer’s assertion that his intent is to wind down the deployment of the temporary units stationed on the border.

“HB20 diverts billions of state resources to fund Operation Lone Star, an unconstitutional scheme that is not protecting Texans. Operation Lone Star is costing us $100 million per month, whereas educating k-12 students costs $9,871 per student per year,” said Jennifer Canales-Pelaez, an attorney and strategist with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “It is mind boggling how this state that consistently ranks lowest in public education prefers to play games with our money and our lives in the name of a political stunt.”

There has already been more than $4.5 billion allotted for border security in the state’s next proposed two-year budget — though it’s unclear what the price tag for Schaefer’s legislation would be or how much would come out of what has already been included.

The legislation was left pending in committee, which adjourned at about 2am after hearing an overwhelming majority of people testify in opposition to HB 20.

Several El Paso residents were among them. They reminded members the man convicted in federal court of killing 23 people at an El Paso Walmart cited an “invasion” of Hispanics to justify his 2019 killing spree.

Attorneys and immigrant rights groups also told lawmakers the problem at the border isn’t about opioids, noting that most of the fentanyl brought into Texas comes through ports of entry and is usually smuggled by U.S. citizens.

“This is not about an opioid crisis, I can tell you that as a physician who treats the patients who have problems with opioid dependency,” said Dona Murphy, a medical doctor and member of Woori Juntos, a Houston-based immigration advocacy group. “This is not about people who are fundamentally violent criminals, this is … about children who are often unaccompanied now and also about parents and their families. Without understanding that I think it’s hard to come up with a solution that’s going to work for us and for them.”

Also discussed was how the Border Protection Unit would be staffed, including concerns it would siphon officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, pointed out it’s already understaffed by about 600 troopers.

Schaefer conceded that fully staffing the unit wouldn’t happen immediately, should the bill pass.

“I think we’re going to have a challenge hiring either way, I think this is going to take time,” Schaefer said.

Rep. Geren added the legislation isn’t specific on how many peace officers or civilian members it would contain, which increased his concern.

“I just got a real problem with how are we going to fill the holes,” he said.

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

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Julián Aguilar
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