Border security bills pass Texas Senate, but will they reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk?

Tribune Content Agency

AUSTIN, Texas — Several proposals to beef up border security passed the Texas Senate on Wednesday, including a bill to slap a minimum, 10-year prison sentence on smugglers of migrants.

The plan is central to Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda for the special session.

The Senate also passed two bills that stray from Abbott’s call for the overtime session. One would create a new state crime for unauthorized entry by a migrant into Texas, and the other would establish a new policing unit along the state’s border with Mexico.

Senators changed the House’s version of the human smuggling bill by Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City. Guillen’s bill cleared the House last week.

The House version allows for a lighter penalty of five years if someone is caught smuggling a relative, unless they were cavalier about their relatives’ physical safety or sexually abused them.

The Senate version tightens the House’s definitions of who is a relative, and also disqualifies a smuggler from a lighter sentence if they use a firearm while committing the crime.

The bill — passed on a bipartisan, 27-2 vote — will head back to the House. There, House members can concur with the Senate’s changes or refuse, which normally would trigger appointment of five people from each chamber who would try to sort out differences in closed door negotiations.

However, last week, on the first day of the current special session, the House adjourned after it passed a property tax relief package and Guillen’s human smuggling bill. Unless the House returns to Austin and reverses its previous vote, the anti-smuggling can’t move on to the governor. Special sessions can last up to 30 days.

Abbott has said he’ll keep calling overtime sessions until the tax and border measures are passed.

In a written statement Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate said the chamber would pass the same three border security proposals in future special sessions until the House “returns from their vacation.”

“The Texas Senate is in Austin working diligently to address the priorities of Texans, including these critical bills,” Patrick said.

On Wednesday afternoon, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The human smuggling bill — House Bill 2 — was the only border-related measure the Senate took up that exactly aligns with the wording of Abbott’s May 29 call of the overtime session.

In his February state of the state address, Abbott asked for increasing the penalty for human smuggling and made it one of seven emergency items for the just-ended regular session.

Smuggling also received national attention in Texas last year following the deaths of 53 migrants inside a tractor trailer left under the scorching sun in San Antonio in June 2022. Two men were federally indicted in connection with the deaths.

Aside from the mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years — which can decrease to five if the suspect cooperates with officials — the bill would increase the penalty for operating a stash house. Currently a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum one-year sentence in a county jail, it would become a third-degree felony with a minimum 5-year prison sentence.

“This will hold smugglers accountable for taking advantage of individuals crossing the Texas-Mexico border by justly punishing them for their crimes,” said Sen. Pete Flores, a Lakeway Republican who is the measure’s Senate author.

Democratic senators disagreed that stiffening the offense for smuggling would deter people from trying to smuggle migrants.

Two other proposals the Senate passed were bills by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, that died during the regular session after flying out of the chamber. Both go beyond what Abbott called for during the special session and it’s unclear how either would become law, given the two chambers’ impasse.

Senate Bill 2 would, in essence, allow Texas to enforce immigration laws — which is the responsibility of the federal government — by creating the crime of unauthorized entry into Texas from Mexico. Birdwell has challenged arguments that the bill would encroach on the federal government’s responsibility. The proposal would not allow for state officials to arrest an undocumented migrant who entered the country through a different state and then arrived in Texas, Birdwell has noted.

Another bill would establish the Texas Border Force, a new policing unit there, which would be housed under the Texas Rangers and overseen by the chief. Both bills passed along party lines, 17-12.