Texas House approves two border security bills

In a victory for proponents of tougher border security measures, the Texas House of Representatives agreed to the state Senate’s version of two bills that will appropriate $1.54 billion for border barrier projects and criminalize illegal immigration at the state level.

The bill criminalizing illegal immigration passed third reading by a vote of 83 ayes to 61 nays, and the appropriations bill passed on third reading by a vote of 84 ayes to 59 nays. The chamber moved quickly to approve the items of business after the Calendars Committee on Monday slated them for consideration.

Rep. Jacey Jetton (R-Richmond) carried Senate Bill (SB) 3, which is the spending bill setting aside another $1.54 billion for the border wall and other construction projects designed to deter illegal immigration. SB 3 was approved relatively quickly early in the day.

Jetton told the chamber the bill includes $40 million to be used for security at Colony Ridge, a housing development in the Houston area that many conservatives fear is a hotbed for illegal immigration. The developer has denied claims that he is enabling illegal immigrants to quickly purchase housing by using lax standards for financing.

Democrats sought to add a series of amendments to the bill, most of which were unsuccessful, including one by Rep. John Bryant (D-Dallas) that he said would require research to ensure the expenses incurred under the bill result in a real deterrence effect. The amendment failed by a vote of 60 ayes to 83 nays.

Gov. Greg Abbott placed several border security items on the agenda for the fourth special session. The House and Senate were unable to agree on versions of the border security legislation before the end of the third special session. When that session concluded, Abbott rapidly called lawmakers back to Austin.

Abbott also included school choice legislation on the special session agenda, which was not passed during the third special session. 

The bill to create severe criminal penalties for illegal immigration, Senate Bill (SB) 4, was carried by Rep. David Spiller (R-Jacksboro).

Rep. Victoria Neave (D-Dallas) said SB 4 is “invasive” and a “usurpation of federal power.” She suggested Republicans are scheming to challenge Arizona v. United States, a Supreme Court case that rebuffed efforts by the Grand Canyon State to enforce immigration law at the state level.

Democrats also expressed concern that children could be prosecuted under the bill, and Rep. Penny Morales Shaw (D-Houston) unsuccessfully tried to add an amendment to prevent children from being arrested under the law.

The body rejected an amendment by Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston) to decrease the penalty bracket for illegal reentry from a third-degree felony to a state jail felony, among other similar amendments.

Unlike SB 3, the chamber spent approximately six hours on SB 4 before Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco) moved the previous question on the bill after obtaining the required 25 signatures.

“This is the same bill that we debated until 4 a.m. just a couple of weeks ago,” Patterson said.

The motion has the effect of cutting debate and amendments short and forcing a vote on the original bill. Patterson’s motion passed by a vote of 81 ayes to 57 nays.

On third reading, Democrats made a series of additional unsuccessful amendments, and delivered speeches against the bill.

In one of the final speeches of the evening, Rep. Jolanda Jones (D-Houston) told members she would not be able to sleep at night if she voted for SB 4.

“I will stop playing the race card when you stop being racist!” Jones said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) disagreed on the enforcement mechanism in the bill. The House version of the legislation would have allowed state police to escort illegal immigrants back to ports of entry.

The Senate version excluded that provision, which Patrick contended was a “catch-and-release” proposition. Phelan contended that incarcerating too many illegal immigrants would result in an exorbitant expense to taxpayers.

In the agreed-upon version of the bill, state magistrates can order an illegal immigrant to leave the country instead of proceeding with a prosecution on charges of unlawfully crossing the border. The illegal immigrant must agree to the order in lieu of prosecution.

Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), a border security proponent who carried the same bill in the third special session, said on the night the Senate passed the measure that he believes it is unconstitutional.

Opponents of these measures say the legislation will contribute to racial profiling and waste more taxpayer dollars on ineffective deterrence measures. There were almost 2.1 million encounters with illegal immigrants by federal border guards in the southwestern U.S. in Fiscal Year 2023, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The state House acted on the bill the day after the U.S. House decided to punt a resolution to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on charges that he has failed to uphold his oath of office to secure the border. The Republican-controlled chamber kicked the resolution to committee by a vote of 209 ayes to 201 nays.

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