Bill to create border task force stalled, special session revives bill enhancing smuggling penalties 

AUSTIN — A bill that would have created a “Texas Border Force” to aid existing law enforcement in border counties failed to reach the governor’s desk by the end of the 88th Texas Legislature on Monday. A separate immigration-related bill — one creating enhanced penalties for those charged with human smuggling — got a second life during a special session called by Governor Greg Abbott Monday evening. 

Abbott said that the session called to begin late Monday night would be the first of multiple. His list of border-related priorities included a $5.1 billion cash infusion to “secure the border,” a push to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations and enhanced penalties for human smuggling-related offenses. 

The first special session concerns smuggling-related offenses, using language borrowed from HB 800, one of a handful of Republican-sponsored immigration bills that failed to make it to the governor’s desk by Monday. That bill, renamed HB 2, passed the House during the special session on Tuesday, according to State Representative Eddie Morales, who represents the Big Bend region. The Senate will take it up during the continued special session on Friday.

The bill would enhance already-enhanced penalties for human smuggling. Prior to September 2021, a person could not be charged with human smuggling under state law unless there was proof that money had changed hands — that changed last year, leaving some border counties struggling to provide adequate jail space for sudden influx in such cases. 

This year’s legislation would increase mandatory minimums: a 10-year minimum jail sentence for felony human smuggling, as well as a five-year minimum sentence for people charged with operating a “stash house.” 

In a press release published on Monday, Abbott also reiterated his support for a budget appropriation of $5.1 billion to “secure the border and fund the Texas National Guard, the Texas Department of Public Safety, and the border wall.” 

Next on the list for potential future special sessions: a push to formally recognize Mexican drug cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations.” 

This language was added by the Senate to HB 7 — the border security bill that would have created a “Texas Border Force” to supplement existing law enforcement operations — just before it was snuffed out by unresolved disagreements between conference committees in the two chambers.

Designating cartels as such under the Texas Penal Code could open up a spectrum of possibilities for surveilling and criminalizing people suspected of immigration-related crimes. If passed, the bill also would have made it a crime to enter the United States outside of a port of entry — adding a state charge to an existing federal law. 

The next special session will be convened by the governor in September, said Morales. It was unclear whether the bill known as HB 7 would be revived at that time.

As the Sentinel was going to press, District 22 Senator Brian Birdwell filed SB 8, a bill with strikingly similar language. Birdwell’s bill calls for “establishing a Texas Border Force and making funds available to certain governmental entities.”

State Senator César Blanco, the Big Bend’s representative in the Senate, was staunchly opposed to HB 7 and was added to a Senate conference committee in the final hours of the regular session.

On May 24, Blanco took to the floor with an impassioned speech asking for the state to re-evaluate existing border policies and enforcement before adding new law enforcement protocols. “I’m concerned law-abiding border residents — who are predominantly Latino — will be subjected to harassment and pretextual traffic stops by this new border force,” he said. 

He felt that border residents should be consulted and considered in efforts to police their communities — rather than having policy dictated by lawmakers and agencies located far away from the communities most immediately affected. “If this was happening in your districts, I know you would stand up for your constituents and communities,” he said. “But it’s not happening in your districts. It’s happening in mine and every border senator’s district.”