Patrick, Phelan argue over border security bills

With time running out in the 88th Legislature’s third special session, some border security bills are moving slowly through the Texas House and Senate.

The two bodies passed a criminal justice bill to set mandatory minimum sentences for human smuggling. Senate Bill (SB) 4 is currently awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature after passing each chamber with bipartisan support.

However, with only five calendar days remaining in the special session, there is still legislation pending to appropriate funds for border barriers and establish stiff criminal penalties for illegal immigration.

In comments on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed the House for the slow pace, pointing to Phelan’s decision allowing the House chamber to “stand at ease” for several days instead of formally adjourning.

Patrick also characterized the House’s priority border security item, House Bill 4, as a “catch-and-release” bill.

“The Speaker is desperate to improve his border credentials with conservatives and sent the House version of HB 4 over to the Senate. The bill’s author claimed it’s the toughest border bill ever, but it is simply a Texas-sized catch-and-release bill,” Patrick wrote on social media.

The lieutenant governor’s criticism was on a list of grievances he had with Phelan about the progress of the special session.

The Senate’s committee substitute for HB 4 removed a provision that would have authorized law enforcement to escort illegal immigrants back to a port of entry instead of arresting them. The Senate Border Security Committee approved the committee substitute on Wednesday by a vote of three ayes to two nays.

Phelan fired back in a statement of his own, saying the Senate version of the bill is “pro-illegal immigration” and “would house undocumented immigrants for up to 99 years, shouldering Texas taxpayers with the exorbitant costs of their long-term detention, including healthcare, housing, and meals.”

Bill author Rep. David Spiller (R-Jacksboro) and Phelan said they worked closely with Abbott’s office on the language of the House version and suggested Patrick is grasping.

“The Lt. Governor’s statement is a desperate bid to salvage what’s left of his credibility on border security this special session after the Senate significantly watered-down House Bill 4, the strongest border legislation that has ever been passed out of the House,” Phelan said.

“Notably, elected officials from both parties in South Texas have shown support for House Bill 4, recognizing its potential to effectively address the unique challenges of our border regions.”

Phelan also mentioned HB 6, the appropriations bill that would set aside another $1.5 billion for border barrier projects. The legislation is currently pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

However, the Senate passed its own version of the bill that would appropriate $1.54 billion and sent it to the House.

Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler) vented in a social media post about the lack of progress on border security.

“The time for decisive action on border security was months ago during the 140 days of regular session. The Senate took action. The House did not. Those are the facts. Now we have a yelling match between the two chambers, and Texans are fed up,” Schaefer wrote.

His bill to establish a statewide border protection unit was lost during the regular session earlier this year after Phelan sustained a point of order against the proposal on the grounds that the bill contained multiple subjects and the bill caption did not give proper notice to the public.

Schaefer introduced another version of his proposed border protection unit during this special session, but it has gone nowhere. The Republican is in his last term after announcing earlier this year he would not seek reelection in 2024.

Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) filed a bill to create a state border protection force, but Phelan has not referred it to a committee.

The last day of the current special session is Tuesday, November 7. If the Legislature does not check enough items off its to-do list, Abbott has the option of calling lawmakers back to Austin for another 30 days.

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