Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
The Texas House on Wednesday gave final approval to a sweeping border protection and funding measure that would create a new state border policing unit and send nearly $100 million to border communities for new detention centers, courts, border security, higher education and economic development projects.
Early versions of the proposal would have created the “Border Protection Unit” entirely out of civilians, allowing them to arrest or detain people — which triggered warnings from immigration advocates of the potential for human rights violations.
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Wednesday threw their support behind a requirement that the unit use only commissioned peace offers for enforcement actions. The move knocked the wind out of a measure designed to sidestep the difficulty that state and local law enforcement agencies have had in recruiting and retaining officers, particularly in the border area.
“Through a variety of programs, HB 7 assists the judicial system, law enforcement, public safety, public services and property owners, educational institutions, businesses and communities in the border region who find themselves bearing the brunt of the situation on the border,” said Guillen, referring to increasing numbers of immigrants being detained at the Texas-Mexico border.
House Democrats resisted the building of new detention facilities and the overall increase of police presence along the border in HB 7, which they said would disproportionately affect people of color.
But they saved their biggest fight for the proposed Border Protection Unit added to the bill at the last minute.
Officers with the unit — led by its own chief and independent of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department that are currently running border operations — would be able to arrest, apprehend or detain individuals crossing unlawfully into Texas from Mexico. The proposal says they can only do that using “nondeadly force.” The unit could still have civilian employees in non-enforcement roles.
Democrats lost the battle to kill the new policing unit altogether, but they managed to reign in key aspects of the proposal at the last minute with the support of House Republicans, including the bill’s author.
“I don’t think this body wants to get in the business of building and constructing baby jails,” Walle said. “I know this body doesn’t want to do that.”
Walle also spearheaded the requirement that the new unit’s enforcement personnel be commissioned law officers instead of civilians.
“Even in the best-case scenario, where you have training, you have expertise, you have all those bells and whistles, you’re still going to find yourself in positions where people make mistakes [or] people do things in the heat of the moment,” said state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who supported the change Wednesday. “But if we lower that bar, which is the way it is in the bill as it came before us today, I think we’re gonna walk ourselves into the larger category of opportunity for some of these more bad outcomes for folks. And honestly, more litigation related to violations of rights.”
An effort by GOP state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, to ban counties from rejecting the new unit won the majority of House votes along party lines. But the requirement failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to amend the legislation during the debate over the bill’s final passage.
“As a nation, we’re failing miserably,” Tinderholt said in arguing for the change. “If there’s a county elected official that doesn’t want this unit in their county, … I’m saying we’re coming to protect it anyway.”
HB 7 now goes to the Senate for consideration. The bill has both Republican and Democratic sponsors from the Rio Grande Valley.
The actual cost of the measure is difficult to project because it creates a number of grants and programs with unspecified funding mechanisms, according to state budget analysts. An earlier fiscal analysis estimates an ongoing cost of about $20 million per year after the 2024-25 cycle, but it concedes that the number is likely to change.
Asked Wednesday what the final cost in state or federal revenue might be, Guillen referred questions to the House and Senate members negotiating the 2024-25 budget, which is expected to top $300 billion when it passes later this month.
The bill gives Republican Gov. Greg Abbott control over how the dollars would be spent. A separate measure creating a border security advisory council to steer policy and funding also won final passage Wednesday, but it was unclear to what extent the grants in the bill would be influenced by the new council.
With this legislation, four new grant programs for local governments and communities would be created to beef up courts and address border safety issues. The grants, controlled by the governor’s office, would pay for the construction and maintenance of facilities such as detention centers, as well as local law enforcement salaries and expenses, new equipment for public safety, temporary border barriers like wire fences and bollards and upgrades to vehicle inspection stations near ports of entry.
The bill also would create an economic development initiative that directs the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office to create a campaign to attract businesses to border areas and promote tourism there.
It also creates a damage compensation fund for property owners, funded by sales of forfeited property related to human smuggling. The fund would be controlled by the attorney general’s office as part of its crime victims compensation program.
The bill would also offer grants to higher education institutions for recruitment and training in border-related professions and to conduct research into border issues.
The legislation also gives the governor the authority to enter into agreements with Mexican states to help protect the border, but it doesn’t say what those agreements would entail.
Tickets are on sale now for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening in downtown Austin on Sept. 21-23. Get your TribFest tickets by May 31 and save big!