Tensions at the border with Mexico remain high.
Over the weekend, video showed hundreds of apparent Venezuelan migrants brush past Mexican National Guard members while trying to illegally immigrate across a bridge into El Paso, Texas. Then, authorities said Sunday that at least eight people were killed when two migrant smuggling boats capsized off the coast of San Diego in one of the deadliest maritime human smuggling operations ever off of U.S. shores.
Now, citing federal inaction, lawmakers in Texas are taking matters into their own hands.
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Texas legislators are proposing a bill, H.B. 20, to create a “Border Protection Unit” and increase penalties for crossing the border illegally.
The bill would make it a state felony to cross illegally, and its new unit could deputize private citizens, the latest in the state’s continued push to test the limits of the federal government’s authority over immigration.
People arrested for crossing into Texas illegally would face up to 10 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines for each violation.
State border officers would serve at the direction of a chief, who would be appointed by the governor. According to a draft bill, which will have to pass reviews by both of the state’s Republican-controlled legislative chambers before the end of May, the chief will be able to employ licensed state and local police officers to serve on the border force, as well as “law-abiding citizens” without felony convictions.
Private citizens employed by the force would be allowed to participate in “unit operations and functions” and have the same criminal and civil liability immunity on the job as the licensed officers. But, they will not have arresting power, unless trained and authorized by the governor, according to the bill’s current form.
Texas has deputized civilians in the past. The polarizing Texas Heartbeat Act requires a citizen to sue as part of the enforcement mechanism.
In any case, Texas seems especially suited for a civilian-led Border Protection Unit. As of 2021, the Lone Star State remains the only state to have granted more than a million gun licenses, almost twice the number of licenses granted in Florida.
The proposal cites a U.S. constitutional clause on state powers when facing invasion and imminent danger and follows numerous calls from former Trump administration officials and sheriffs in several South Texas counties for Abbott to declare what they have called an “invasion” under this clause.
The use of the word “invasion” is controversial, but that word has been used by several state judges, including a former Democrat.
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The Republican proposals in the Texas Legislature would continue pushing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s massive, $4 billion border mission known as Operation Lone Star. That has included the governor heavily increasing patrols near the border with Mexico, gridlocking traffic with increased commercial truck inspections, and building more barriers along the international boundary, echoing former President Donald Trump’s unfished campaign promise.
Abbott would provide a stark contrast to President Joe Biden, who has presided over a massive surge in border crossings. Many migrants have turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents and were released in the U.S. to pursue their cases in federal immigration court. Most never show up at their court date and simply disappear.
Other bills filed this session would allow a newly created unit of state police to arrest, detain and deter people crossing into Texas illegally, construct more and maintain existing barriers between Texas and Mexico and return immigrants to Mexico if they are seen crossing into Texas.
Conservatives say that the $4 billion is being invested and put to good use.
Operation Lone Star also has included directing officers to detain migrants who trespass on private property and bused thousands of migrants to Democrat-led cities, including New York and Washington, D.C. The moves have put a spotlight on Abbott, who aides say is weighing a run for president.
Predictably, Texas Democrats pounced on H.B. 2o.
“It is designed to create racial profiling,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told The Associated Press on Monday. “Something that is just horrendous.”
Some Democrats even questioned the legality of the measure, comparing it to 2017’s much-litigated “ban on sanctuary cities.”
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The 2017 proposal was signed into law and but was later challenged in court and is pending a resolution, according to liberal activist Alexis Bay, legislative coordinator with the Beyond Borders at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the Associated Press that the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article.