AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas House Committee on State Affairs on Wednesday will consider a bill to create the “Border Protection Unit,” vesting broad new law enforcement responsibilities in a new arm of the Department of Public Safety and challenging the limits of the state’s border jurisdiction.
House Bill 20 by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, gives DPS a new responsibility of “defense and security of this state’s air, maritime, and land borders.” The governor would have sole authority to appoint and remove the unit chief, and the director of DPS would not have authority over the unit or its officers.
The unit would be headquartered in the “border region,” but its jurisdiction would expand across the state. The bill confers broad responsibilities onto officers, including apprehending people crossing the Texas-Mexico border unlawfully, making arrests in any county in Texas, constructing border barriers, searching ships and vehicles near ports of entry, and using force to “repel cartel operatives.”
The bill allows the unit chief to employ both commissioned and noncommissioned peace officers. Officers employed with the unit would be required to either complete the state’s law enforcement training or be former officers in another state or federal agency.
Ahead of the committee hearing, dozens of activists and citizens of border communities rallied against the bill, citing concerns the powers are overreaching with inadequate accountability.
“These bills are not meant to protect Texans. These bills are dangerous bills and are going to perpetuate hate in our communities,” Yvonne Diaz with the El Paso chapter of the progressive organization Texas Rising said. “Black and brown people will be the most affected by these bills because it’s going to perpetuate racial profiling.”
Law enforcement officials on the border expressed their need for the support.
“We need this to take place. Organized crime has taken root throughout Texas, and it’s drastically impacting the quality of lives of people throughout the state,” Goliad County Sheriff Roy Boyd said. “I think that the problem is most people look at this and they think it’s a new Border Patrol. That’s not what this is. This is a law enforcement organization that is designed to enforce the laws that are already on the books in the state of Texas.”
Passionate perspectives will conflict at the Capitol on Wednesday, but federal law is settled: border enforcement is the federal government’s sole responsibility.
“[HB 20] is problematic because an illegal crossing is first an immigration issue, second a customs issue. The state bill is going to bestow that on them. And they can’t, because that is not a state jurisdiction,” Director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at UT-El Paso Victor Manjarrez said.
The bill cites fentanyl, human trafficking, and cartel violence as justifications to declare authority under Section 10, Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. That provision forbids states from engaging in foreign policy, keeping troops, or waging war “unless actually invaded, or in such imminent danger as will not admit of delay.” The bill asserts the situation on the southern border meets such standards.
The bill also preempts federal challenges by asserting severability, meaning that if any one part of the statute is declared unconstitutional, it would not invalidate the entire statute.
The House State Affairs Committee was still hearing testimony on the bill as of 5:30 Wednesday evening.