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Proposal to increase penalties for human smuggling stalls in Texas Senate

Migrants trudge along the border fence to a waiting bus after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas.
John Burnett
/
NPR
Migrants trudge along the border fence to a waiting bus after turning themselves in to the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas.

The standoff between the Texas House and Senate that began over property tax legislation now appears to include border security after a committee of the upper chamber on Tuesday declined to advance a House bill on human smuggling.

A Texas Senate committee heard a handful of border-security bills after Gov. Greg Abbott last week ordered lawmakers back to Austin to address the issue because several key pieces of legislation failed to pass during the regular session.

The Texas House last week immediately passed out House Bill 2, by state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, that would increase penalties for human smugglers and operators of stash houses to 10 years in prison. But the Senate committee left that legislation pending and instead passed out its own version, Senate bill 5, and two other proposals that were not on the governor’s call.

State Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, said an amendment added to the House bill had unintended consequences. The amendment lowered penalties for people convicted on the charges if they proved they were a relative through blood or marriageto the migrants. Flores said that would even include smugglers who carried a firearm or were getting paid for their actions.

“I have big problems with that, if you’re taking money, you [have] a firearm and you’re … smuggling people, that doesn’t sound like something a family member does,” he said. “So that’s what the big difference was.”

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday evening and possibly pass out the Senate bills that advanced out of committee. But with the House out, that’s as far as they’ll travel. Birdwell said the committee could reconvene later Tuesday or Wednesday morning to introduce a substitute to the House bill. But the House would need to be in session to advance that legislation also.

In a tweet, a spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan said senators didn’t raise the same concern over the amendment when the same language was added to a separate measure during the regular session.

“Apparently the ‘significant challenge’ here is that HB2 contains the exact text of a senate floor amendment to HB800 that was adopted in the Senate without opposition… they were for it then, why not now?” she tweeted.

The Senate committee also advanced separate proposals, including one that would establish the Texas Border Force under direction of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and another that would make it a state crime to enter Texas illegally from Mexico. Neither of those topics were specified under Abbott’s special-session call.

The impasse adds another layer of drama between the two chambers that escalated last week after the House passed its version of a property-tax reduction bill. The legislation — House Bill 1 — would lower property taxes for residential and commercial property owners. The Senate plan would also provide relief for both, but would provide more for homeowners when compared to the House plan because of an increase in the value of a homestead exemption.

Abbott said he’d call lawmakers back to address other unfinished business later this summer so it’s likely border security legislation will be revisited yet again if a solution between the two chambers isn’t worked out.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is scheduled to host a news conference later Tuesday afternoon before the Senate gavels in.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at jaguilar@kera.org.You can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar
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