AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Texas are proposing legislation that would make it a state felony to cross the border from Mexico illegally and create a new border police force that could deputize private citizens, the latest in the state's continued push to test the limits of the federal government's authority over immigration.
Civil rights organizations, immigration advocates and Democrats immediately decried the proposals, which began drawing attention after Friday's deadline for filing bills in Texas' ongoing biennial legislative session.
“I think the underlying fact that it is going to allow people to question our being American in our border communities and across Texas is unacceptable,” said Texas state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, chairwoman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.
Since President Joe Biden took office, illegal crossings have soared. Many migrants have turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents and were released in the U.S. to pursue their cases in federal immigration court.
The Republican proposals in the Texas Legislature would continue pushing Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's massive, $4 billion border mission known as Operation Lone Star. That has included the governor heavily increasing patrols near the border with Mexico, gridlocking traffic with increased commercial truck inspections, and building more barriers along the international boundary, echoing former President Donald Trump's unfished campaign promise.
The effort also has included directing officers to detain migrants who trespass on private property and bused thousands of migrants to Democrat-led cities, including New York and Washington, D.C. The moves have put a spotlight on Abbott, who aides say is weighing a run for president.
Bills filed this session would allow a newly created unit of state police to arrest, detain and deter people crossing into Texas illegally, construct more and maintain existing barriers between Texas and Mexico and return immigrants to Mexico if they are seen crossing into Texas.
State border officers would serve at the direction of a chief, who would be appointed by the governor. According to a draft bill, which will have to pass reviews by both of the state's Republican-controlled legislative chambers before the end of May, the chief will be able to employ licensed state and local police officers to serve on the border force, as well as “law-abiding citizens” without felony convictions.
Private citizens employed by the force would be allowed to participate in “unit operations and functions” and have the same criminal and civil liability immunity on the job as the licensed officers. But, they will not have arresting power, unless trained and authorized by the governor, according to the bill’s current form.
People arrested for crossing into Texas illegally would face up to 10 years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines for each violation.
The proposal cites a U.S. constitutional clause on state powers when facing invasion and imminent danger and follows numerous calls from former Trump administration officials and sheriffs in several South Texas counties for Abbott to declare what they have called an “invasion” under this clause.
Neave Criado said language such as “invasion” matters and has been used by individuals such as the North Texas man who drove to El Paso and killed 23 people in a racially motivated rampage.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement that “addressing our state’s border and humanitarian crisis" was a priority. Phelan said the proposed border police as well as a proposed Legislative Border Safety Oversight Committee, which would provide border safety policy recommendations and oversight to the new policing unit and work on issues in South Texas, were a “must-pass issue.”
Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Civil rights organizations and state Democrats quickly denounced the legislation. The proposal also drew comparisons to a 2017 “ban on sanctuary cities” that allowed police to ask a person’s immigration status and threatened sheriffs and police chiefs with jail time if they refused to cooperate with federal authorities to enforce immigration law.
That proposal was signed into law and but was later challenged in court and is pending a resolution, according to Alexis Bay, legislative coordinator with the Beyond Borders at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Bay said the powers and immunity that would be conveyed to private citizens serving on the proposed border force is unlike anything seen in recent Texas history.
“It is designed to create racial profiling,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told The Associated Press on Monday. “Something that is just horrendous."
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency does not comment on pending legislation.
Tensions at the border with Mexico remain high. Over the weekend, video showed hundreds of apparent Venezuelan migrants brush past Mexican National Guard members while trying to cross a bridge into El Paso, Texas, before being blocked by U.S. agents.
Authorities said Sunday that at least eight people were killed when two migrant smuggling boats capsized off the coast of San Diego in one of the deadliest maritime human smuggling operations ever off of U.S. shores.
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