Texas House continues debate over border security legislation

A scuffle occurred on the floor of the Texas House last month as the body debated border security legislation during the third special session of 2023 — bills the chamber will again consider Tuesday in the fourth special session.

On Monday morning, the House Calendars Committee set a floor calendar for the following day that included Senate Bills (SB) 3 and 4.

SB 3 would appropriate $1.5 billion for the construction and maintenance of border barriers, which includes the state’s under-development border wall, along with $40 million for overtime costs incurred by the Texas Department of Public Safety associated with its surge in Liberty County’s Colony Ridge development.

As of the end of October, state contractors building the border wall have completed 12 miles at a cost between $25 million and $30 million per mile. With the appropriation, if the whole is allotted for wall construction, the state could add 50 more miles on top of the 180 miles of federal wall already built.

The smaller chunk of the appropriation directed toward Colony Ridge is an attempt to continue bolstering law enforcement presence in the massive development that’s sprung up in the Houston exurb — a presence that has been welcomed with open arms by the Liberty County sheriff’s office.

SB 4, which is expected to draw more of the ire from the Legislature’s minority party, would create a state crime for illegal entry into Texas from a foreign nation. The most controversial portion of the bill would allow state law enforcement to apprehend illegal immigrants in the state, return them to a port of entry, and order them to return to their country of origin.

Announcing the inter-chamber deal on the illegal entry law, state Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) and state Rep. David Spiller (R-Jacksboro) said in a joint statement, “This bill establishes an effective deterrent to prevent illegal entries into our state, and we believe this bill clearly accomplishes the will of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.”

“Our approach authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest any person who illegally enters or re-enters Texas. These new procedures will ensure that every illegal crosser arrested is fingerprinted and receives a background check. After appearing before a magistrate or judge, the illegal border crosser will be taken to a port of entry and ordered to return to the foreign nation from which the person illegally entered from.”

Both bills have passed the upper chamber, which moves at a much faster pace than its counterpart, and both proposals are identical as filed in the two chambers. After the third special session expired before the two items could be agreed upon, legislators in both chambers quickly announced deals struck in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott calling the fourth special session to take up the pair, along with education items that include education savings accounts (ESA).

State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury), chair of the Border Security Committee who carried the bill during the last special session, opposed the bill and voiced his disagreement with the removal language in a floor speech.

“Even though there are numerous officials maliciously violating their oath [to the U.S. Constitution],” Birdwell said, naming President Joe Biden and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, “there is no clause in the Constitution that says the wrong I believe we are about to commit allows us to step outside the bounds of our oath and the text of the Constitution.”

Birdwell stated his belief that authority over immigration lies solely with the federal government and that SB 4 would abridge that separation of powers.

Despite that objection, the bills moved quickly through the Senate and now return to the House where tensions boiled over last month.

State Rep. Armando Walle (D-Houston), a leadership-friendly Democrat who rarely causes a stir, was filmed confronting state Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine) on the floor after a motion succeeded in limiting debate on amendments.

“I’ve sat there and been a good f—— soldier to [Phelan], to my own detriment, and to cut off debate when all of our members are trying to have a debate,” Walle said last month. After tensions calmed, Walle said he stood by the comments.

With the topic of illegal immigration back on the agenda, a redux of the emotional debate from October could be in the cards; the debate that night lasted until early morning the following day.

This fourth special session has been smoother from the outset than its predecessor, with all signs pointing to members being absolutely sick of each other and of being the capital city.

That’s made for a faster process so far, with bills close to the governor’s desk only a week after the special session was initially convened. But even with last month's quarrel on the floor, the biggest fight to come will be on the House’s education omnibus proposal that includes the ESAs, which have more than their fair share of skepticism, or outright opposition, within the majority party.

The clock to Thanksgiving is ticking, with those in the Legislature rearing to get out of Dodge for the holiday.

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