BORDER SECURITYTexas Senate Approves Creation New Immigration Enforcement Unit, Allow State Police to Arrest for Border Crossings

By Jolie McCullough and James Barragán

Published 24 May 2023

The House has already passed the bill, but the two chambers will need to iron out the differences in their versions before it is sent to Gov. Greg Abbott. It’s the most sweeping of a Republican package of bills that aims to stiffen the state’s response to a record number of crossings at Texas’ southern border.

In the early Wednesday hours, the Texas Senate pushed the GOP’s priority immigration legislation creating a new state border police force closer to the finish line.

House Bill 7 would also make it a state crime for migrants to enter the state anywhere but a port of entry, create a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence for human smugglers, and devote $100 million for new detention centers, courts, security and economic development projects for border communities.

It’s the most sweeping of a Republican package of bills that aims to stiffen the state’s response to a record number of crossings at Texas’ southern border. It also tests the limits of a state’s authority to enforce immigration laws, which have traditionally been the purview of the federal government.

HB 7 initially passed the Senate just after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday — nearly 16 hours after senators entered the chamber Tuesday — on a 19-12 vote along party lines. The bill still needs final approval by the chamber before it will go back to the House, where lawmakers can accept the Senate’s changes or seek a compromise.

“House Bill 7 will enhance border security operations, provide more tools to law enforcement and prosecutors, and increase the safety of the border region in Texas,” state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said when first laying out his bill after midnight.

Earlier versions of the bill’s border police unit drew intense criticism for aiming to allow civilians to serve as officers, which opponents said would have allowed unlicensed vigilantes to patrol Texas’ border.

Early Wednesday morning, Birdwell told fellow lawmakers the new Texas Border Force would have both commissioned law enforcement officers and noncommissioned employees. Only the commissioned law enforcement officers would have arrest powers or be allowed to carry guns under the bill, he said. State Sen. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who offered the amendment to clarify the duties of the two kinds of employees, said noncommissioned employees could transport people arrested by the unit and provide other logistical support.

That is a reversal of the House’s version of the bill, which had been amended to allow only licensed peace officers to be part of the new border unit. That version of the bill also limited the unit’s activity to border communities where county commissioners had given approval.