Texas House passes controversial bill to create a ‘Border Protection Unit’

Unit members, who would not have to be law enforcement officers, would be empowered to “arrest, apprehend, or detain persons crossing the Texas-Mexico border unlawfully, and deter persons attempting to cross the border unlawfully.”

AUSTIN — A controversial bill to create a separate border policing unit in counties along the Río Grande — co-authored by Texas State Representative Eddie Morales, who represents the Big Bend region — passed the Texas House of Representatives last week and is now working its way through the Senate. House Bill 7 would create a “Border Protection Unit” to assist law enforcement in operations along the border.

Unit members, who would not have to be law enforcement officers, would be empowered to “arrest, apprehend, or detain persons crossing the Texas-Mexico border unlawfully, and deter persons attempting to cross the border unlawfully.”

HB 7 rose from the ashes of House Bill 20, an entirely Republican-sponsored bill killed on a technicality last Wednesday night. Sponsors of HB 7 quickly copy-pasted language in order to allow key elements of the dead bill to live on — the amended version was then passed along to the Senate, which held public hearings on Thursday morning.

The authors of the original HB 20 argued the creation of the Border Protection Unit was necessary given the spread of human and drug trafficking across the United States-Mexico border as well as border communities becoming “overwhelmed” with an influx of migrants.

Beyond threats to the health and safety of border residents, the bill suggested there was an emotional toll its authors hoped to quell by expanding law enforcement presence. “Many Texans have lost the peaceful use and enjoyment of their properties due to criminal activities along the border,” it reads.

In both bills, the Border Protection Unit is described as a “criminal justice agency” that supports existing law enforcement operations in border counties and counties adjacent to border counties.

Commissioned law enforcement officers from other agencies — sheriffs, state troopers and local police — can be members. Other state employees designated as peace officers can also be appointed, pulling from a huge pool of folks employed in positions as diverse as park rangers, fire marshals and TABC investigators.

The Border Protection Unit would be led by a “unit chief” appointed by the governor. The only explicit qualification to be tapped as unit chief is to be a U.S. citizen, and only the governor can remove the chief from office. Working closely with the governor, the chief would have hiring and firing power and help implement an as-yet-undetermined training program.

Any officer within the unit may make arrests on suspected immigration offenses. Commissioned officers — meaning individuals with a peace officer license under the Texas Criminal code — may make arrests in any border county, even if it’s not their own.

In addition to making arrests, officers may also use “non-lethal crowd control measures” to deter people from crossing the border.

The original text of HB 20 — decried by the Human Rights Watch — granted officers of the Border Protection Unit “immunity from any criminal or civil liability” for actions taken on behalf of the agency.

The version of HB 7 that passed the House retains much of the same language as the amended HB 20 while also including provisions for a “Border Region Court Program” supporting strained legal institutions along the border — arguing that prosecutions have “significantly increased” in the wake of Operation Lone Star, the state’s $4-billion-plus infusion of cash to local law enforcement.

In addition to a pathway for grant funding for visiting judges and court staff, the bill also specifies that state money can be used for “construction and maintenance of facilities” including courts and processing and detention centers, as well as “temporary border security infrastructure” such as “barriers, fences, wires, roads, trenches and surveillance technology.”

Ports of entry and qualifying educational institutions could also benefit financially from the bill — HB 7 has a pro-business bent, hoping to attract companies to set up shop in border counties as well as to “support and promote tourism in the border region.”

All of the 55 sponsors of HB 20 were Republicans. None of the six primary sponsors represented border counties.

HB 7 was authored by five state representatives from border counties, including three democrats: Richard Raymond (District 42), Sergio Muñoz Jr. (District 36) and Eddie Morales (District 74). Republicans Jamie Lope (District 37) and Ryan Guillen (District 31) also signed on.

Five of the primary sponsors of HB 20 signed on to the amended version of HB 7 that was passed on to the Senate: Brian Harrison (District 10), J.M. Lozano (District 43), Teresa Leo-Wilson (District 23) and Ellen Troxclair (District 19).

None of the authors of HB 20 or HB 7 returned requests for comment from The Big Bend Sentinel, including Morales, the Big Bend’s representative in the House.

Senator Cesar Blanco, the Big Bend’s representative in the Senate, said he was “vehemently opposed” to the creation of a Border Protection Unit. He felt that the vagueness of the bill could still pave the way for civilians to be granted the power to enforce federal immigration law, as originally detailed in HB 20. “This bill lacks guardrails,” he wrote to The Big Bend Sentinel. “With this bill lacking a humanitarian aspect, I worry that this could potentially lead to the profiling and targeting of Latinos in our communities.”

On a media call hosted by a panel of policy experts and immigrants rights advocates, Fatima Menéndez, Southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, explained that the bill would directly challenge the delineation between state and federal law enforcement, as Border Protection Unit officers would be tasked with enforcing federal immigration law.

Menéndez pointed toward efforts by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to fight Arizona v. United States, a 2012 ruling that state law enforcement agencies may not usurp federal immigration officials in enforcing federal law, citing Article VI of the U.S. Constitution. Paxton has sued the Biden administration a dozen times hoping to challenge current immigration policy at the federal level.

Paxton has repeatedly called to “test” the limits of the Arizona ruling in particular and argued that the time was ripe, given the fact that the Trump administration appointed more justices to the Supreme Court than any president since Reagan. “We should test to see if the states can protect themselves, given the circumstances we’re in that we’ve never been in before,” he testified before the Texas Senate on March 16.

Menéndez felt that those efforts by states to supersede federal policy would target the most vulnerable land border crossers. “These officers would be authorized to arrest, apprehend, detain and remove persons that may have legitimate asylum claims before those individuals are ever able to speak with a federal immigration officer,” she said.

On a more symbolic level, Betty Camargo of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights — which also has an office in Presidio — felt that the bill contributed to a pervasive mischaracterization and militarization of “safe and secure” border communities. She argued that many borderlands residents would prefer to welcome and serve migrants rather than turning them away.

Camargo found parallels in early 20th century immigration policy and the waves of immigrants from Europe seeking financial and physical security. “The border has become the new Ellis Island for many individuals,” she said. “We want to uphold our American values of dignity and respect, rather than hate and fear.”