Texas House Democrats killed a bill May 9 that would have allowed civilians to patrol the Texas-Mexico border and detain migrants. Portions of the legislation, which was a priority of House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, were tacked onto another bill as amendments, but the most contentious items were left out.

House Bill 20, by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, would have created a new “Border Protection Unit,” giving Gov. Greg Abbott the sole authority to select its leader. The border force would have consisted of licensed law enforcement officers and civilians, who, after training, could arrest and detain migrants for illegally crossing the border. HB 20 also would have allowed prosecutors to charge both migrants and U.S. citizens with a third-degree felony for trespassing on private property while crossing into Texas “from any neighboring jurisdiction.”

Schaefer told Community Impact that allowing everyday Texans to join the border protection unit would ensure Texas has a “sustainable workforce” at the border. The Texas Department of Public Safety currently has the primary presence there, alongside members of the Texas National Guard. But Schaefer said law enforcement currently does not have the capacity to deal with high rates of immigration and also stop the flow of fentanyl, a deadly opioid, into Texas.

“We have a part-time workforce applied against a very full-time threat,” Schaefer said.

House Democrats and other immigration advocates said the bill would have emboldened “vigilantes” to go after migrants.

“This legislation is going to create a civilian police force with police powers, who will be able to travel through any of our counties or any of our cities, to set up checkpoints—to question us ... without consequences and with immunity,” said Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas. “Imagine checkpoints outside of churches, outside of schools, outside of neighborhoods, whether it’s an Asian community in Houston; a Latino community in Dallas or the Valley.”

Neave Criado chairs the House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus and led the charge to kill the bill. Throughout the day, Democrats stalled by prolonging discussion on other bills. When HB 20 reached the floor, they raised multiple points of order—a procedural tactic typically used to delay or kill legislation.

The third and final point of order, by Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, argued that the bill contained multiple subjects, and the bill’s caption, which explains what the bill would do, did not give reasonable notice of the subjects.

Phelan accepted the point of order, sending the bill back to the House State Affairs Committee. The bill would have allowed Abbott to declare that “a state of invasion or imminent danger ... exists,” which Phelan said is a declaration of war and must be included in the caption.

The decision was made after a 10 p.m. deadline for bills to be placed on a final House calendar. According to chamber rules, all House bills must receive initial passage by May 11 and each day’s calendar must be finalized 36 hours in advance.

After HB 20 was defeated, Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, revived portions of the bill by adding them to his own legislation, HB 7, as amendments.

The updated border bill

Major elements of Schaefer’s bill were not included in HB 7. The scaled-back proposal still creates a border protection unit, but only licensed peace officers would be able to join. People who have been convicted of a violent offense or dishonorably discharged from the military would not be eligible to join the unit.

Additionally, the unit’s operations would be limited to counties along the border. Commissioners courts in those counties also must provide written consent in order for the border force to set up shop.

Under the bill, members of the border protection unit would not be allowed to detain migrants under 10 years old for border-related crimes.

Abbott would still have full control of the hiring and firing of the new border protection chief.

HB 7 passed with an 88-56 vote May 10. It now heads to the Senate.

The House debate on border bills came days before the end of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy used to expel migrants seeking asylum. Title 42 expires at 11 p.m. May 11.

During a May 8 news conference, Abbott announced that specially trained Texas National Guard members were being deployed to “hotspots” along the border as part of a new Texas Tactical Border Force. Abbott said the Biden administration expects approximately 13,000 people will illegally cross the border after Title 42 expires.

“President Biden is laying down a welcome mat to people all across the world, saying the U.S. border is wide open,” Abbott said.
Texas National Guard troops walk behind Gov. Greg Abbott as he discusses border security at a news conference May 8 at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. "[Troops] will be deployed to hotspots along the border to intercept, to repel and to turn back migrants who are trying to enter Texas illegally," Abbott said. (Hannah Norton/Community Impact)
HB 20 is the second bill House Democrats have forced back to committee. On May 2 and 5, Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, raised successful points of order on Senate Bill 14, which would ban transition-related treatments for Texas youth. SB 14 is up for discussion in the House on May 12.