Billions more for border security underscores Texas’ focus on drug, immigration issue

Texas Republican lawmakers again spared no expense on border security this session by allocating more than $5 billion for border security in the 2024-2025 state budget. That’s up from the $4.5 billion estimated for border security in 2021. Most of this resource will go to continue funding the controversial Operation Lone Star, a state-led effort that has sent thousands of Texas Department of Public Safety officers and Texas National Guard soldiers to the border. The bulk of the funds will go to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Military Department and Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

To date, the state has spent about $10 billion of taxpayer money for border security, an amount that began to steadily increase in 2014 in the administration of now-former Gov. Rick Perry, also a Republican.

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But that measure got more attention after President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, prompting Abbott to kick Operation Lone Star into high gear.

“While we have done a lot, we recognize that more needs to be done. Importantly, the Legislature has recognized that as well,” Abbott said during a bill signing earlier this summer to earmark a package of immigration and border security bills. “In just two sessions, Texas is spending nearly $10 billion to address the crisis and chaos caused by the Biden administration.”

Operation Lone Star has been controversial: at least four National Guard members involved with the mission have committed suicide and Democrats in the U.S. Congress have demanded a federal investigation into these actions after reports that Texas DPS agents were mistreating migrants. The latest controversy has pitted the Biden administration against Abbott and the state in federal court after Texas installed a series of buoys on the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass. Abbott explained that this measure is just another tool in the state’s arsenal to secure the border. But Biden and other opponents argued that the buoys violate federal and international treaties with Mexico. A federal judge is still considering the case.

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The budget was not the only way lawmakers addressed border security this year. During the five-month regular session, a range of legislation was debated, from the creation of a new state police force to compensating landowners for property damage caused by migrants or law enforcement officers. While some of the more controversial measures did not pass, other proposals became law on Friday, September 1. Here are some of the highlights:

Senate Bill 602: Expanding Border Patrol Powers.

The legislation gives U.S. Border Patrol agents the ability to search, detain and arrest individuals suspected of state crimes, greatly expanding the power of federal agents. Before the law was passed, Border Patrol agents were only authorized to detain state crime suspects pending transfer to a law enforcement officer. But state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, pointed out that more than a dozen federal agencies allow their agents to enforce state law in some way and that Border Patrol agents should not be excluded.

“The limitation on where the Border Patrol can detain people means they cannot detain any person suspected of committing a state crime when they are patrolling along the border,” Birdwell noted during a committee hearing earlier this year.

The legislation requires the Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct a training program on state criminal laws and their applications and the Texas Attorney General’s office to notify U.S. Border Patrol sector chiefs of the change.

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As introduced, SB 602 also would have authorized Border Patrol agents to enforce Texas misdemeanor laws, but was narrowed to include only felonies after some Democrats asserted that including misdemeanors would take too long.

Senate Bill 1403: Allows Texas to work with other states on border security

Governor Greg Abbott has already successfully recruited leaders from other states to join his border security operation. As of Aug. 25, more than a dozen states (including Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Idaho, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming) have deployed personnel or resources. to support the controversial goals of Operation Lone Star, Abbott noted in a statement last week.

The Texas Legislature expects to take it a step further once SB 1403 takes effect Sept. 1. The new law authorizes Texas to create and execute an interstate compact for border security purposes. Under the legislation, participating entities will share intelligence and other information on illegal activities along the state’s southern border. It also allows for the sharing of “funding and other assistance to create and maintain defensive border structures,” which likely means a border wall.

During debate on the legislation, some opponents expressed concern about whether such a change required U.S. congressional approval. But lawmakers commented that that is not necessary because the pact would not increase the “political power of participating states relative to the federal government.”

That was not the only concern. State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, rejected the component requiring participating states to contribute resources to build a border barrier.

“There may be a couple of places where a border wall will be placed, but we are also focused on a virtual wall,” he emphasized during a committee hearing when the bill was introduced.

Despite Hinojosa’s concern, the final version of the bill retained the requirement for a physical barrier, while leaving room for expanded technology-based security.

Senate Bill 1900: Designates Mexican cartels as terrorist organizations.

Designating Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist organizations would essentially treat suspected cartel members the same way the state conceives of street gang members by adding them to the same penalty pools.

Governor Abbott already declared Mexican cartels as FTOs in a 2022 executive order, but that was seen primarily as a symbolic action because that designation is generally issued by the federal government. By passing SB 1900, lawmakers made cartel members susceptible to the same punishments currently incurred by gang members when convicted of crimes such as criminal mischief, coercion, firearms violations and a host of other offenses. The legislation also allows Texas to seize property of FTO members and adds information on suspected cartel members to the state’s criminal database.

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