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Protest and rallies planned as Texas lawmakers consider far-reaching immigration bill

Renee Dominguez

A Texas legislative session that’s seen tense debates over school voucher programs and the rights of transgender Texans now makes way for another contentious issue as a major immigration bill will be heard in a House committee Wednesday.

House bill 20, by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, is perhaps the most controversial among immigration-related bills filed this session. Were the legislation to pass, it would form a new state law enforcement unit on the border, a so-called Border Protection Unit. Its broad powers of enforcement would also include certain immunity for its members.

The unit would “be headquartered along the border and prioritize the recruitment of individuals who are either residents of or have significant experience with border communities to staff the operation,” according to language in the bill. Its duties would include building and maintaining a border wall, as well as deterring illegal immigration and drug smuggling, possibly through using non-lethal force to “repel migrants.”

The bill already has Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan’s blessing. Last month, Phelan labeled the legislation a priority item. That’s in line with the state’s GOP — which has marked immigration as a priority this session — as well as Gov. Greg Abbott. Abbott's Operation Lone Star, a state-led effort that has cost billions, has deployed thousands of Texas Department of Public Safety and National Guard units to the border.

If approved by the House State Affairs committee, the bill would then move to the full House for consideration.

Immigration advocacy groups have decried HB 20 as the de facto promotion of vigilante justice that would target people of color in Texas. They’re also planning rallies and protests ahead of the hearing at the state Capitol on Wednesday.

“HB 20 is a far-reaching bill that would establish and empower a separate unit within the Department of Public Safety to recruit individuals not employed by the department and without any experience in law enforcement to roam the streets of Texas and arrest and detain any community member they perceive as a ‘migrant’,” stated a Tuesday press release from several immigrant advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Border Network for Human Rights. “These vigilantes would be granted criminal and civil immunity against claims of wrongdoing. The bill would heighten the criminal penalties and up to a $10,000 fine against migrants.”

The goal of Wednesday’s rally is “to denounce the attacks on border communities, immigrants, and the use of state resources to promote a white-supremacist, xenophobic agenda,” according to the release.

Rep. Schaefer’s office didn’t return phone calls seeking comment for this story. However, after filing the legislation last month, Schaefer said members of the border unit would be trained before being deployed.

“The Texas Border Protection Unit will be an organization of professional men and women hired/trained under the authority of the Dept of Public Safety to protect Texans,” he tweeted in March. His tweet was in response to a tweet from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus which labeled the bill a “death squad” policy.

“The dangerous, radical and unconstitutional proposal which empowers border vigilantes to hunt migrants and racially profile Latinos is going to result in the death of innocent people,” said MALC’s chair, state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D- Dallas, in a statement.

The financial impact of the legislation on the state’s coffers isn’t clear however. There is no fiscal note or analysis attached to the proposal on the state’s legislative website. But the Texas House did greenlight its version of the state budget last week, which included an earmark of about $4.6 billion for border security for the state’s 2024 and 2025 fiscal years.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar