During a contentious, marathon floor session that stretched into the early morning of Oct. 26, the Texas House approved three bills aimed at curbing illegal border crossings into Texas. Lawmakers also passed a bill that would prohibit private companies from requiring their employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The 18-hour floor session, which began at 10 a.m. Oct. 25 and wrapped up around 4 a.m. the following day, centered on House Bill 4. The sweeping proposal would allow state and local law enforcement to arrest and jail undocumented immigrants. Debate stalled for three hours after a heated exchange between Democrats and Republicans.

HB 4 is headed to the Texas Senate for consideration, alongside a proposal to use $1.5 billion for border wall construction. A bill that would increase penalties for human smuggling is on its way to the governor’s desk, while the vaccine mandate ban will return to the Senate for approval of changes made by the House.

The details

Under HB 4, by Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, people accused of illegally entering Texas from another country could be arrested, detained or ordered to leave the U.S. People who refuse to leave the country when ordered to by law enforcement could face up to 20 years in jail.

Tensions flared after Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, proposed a limit on how many amendments to HB 4 could be discussed, a rare move. After lawmakers approved the motion, Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, confronted Harris, arguing it was unfair to restrict debate on legislation that Democrats said would endanger immigrants across Texas.

Raising his voice, Walle walked over to Harris to express his frustrations about the limit on amendments, while Harris remained quiet. Lawmakers from each party crowded around their colleagues.

“[It] hurts our community; it hurts us personally,” an angered Walle told Harris. “Y’all don’t understand that—y’all don’t live in our [expletive] skin.”

The House took a break for three hours as lawmakers met behind closed doors to determine how to move forward on the controversial bill. When they returned, lawmakers debated more than 30 amendments. Four were approved.

An amendment by Spiller clarified that law enforcement cannot arrest or remove undocumented immigrants if they are at a public or private school, hospital or place of religious worship. Police also could not push children into the water at border crossings or deny children access to water and medical care, the bill states.

People seeking forensic examinations and medical care for sexual assault would also be protected from arrest and removal.

House lawmakers approved the GOP-backed HB 4 around 4 a.m. Oct. 26 by a 84-60 vote along party lines.

What they’re saying

“Texans know the Biden administration has failed and refused to enforce federal immigration law at our southern border,” Spiller said.

He framed his bill as a “Texas solution” to a “crisis” at the border. Currently, the federal government has the sole authority to arrest and deport people for illegally entering the U.S.

But Democrats argued the bill was overly broad and would allow law enforcement to target Hispanic Texans, including those legally in the country. They compared it to a “show me your papers” measure passed in 2017 that allowed police to question the immigration status of anyone they detain.

“This is the kind of border invasion idea that got so many people in my hometown killed,” said Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, referencing a 2019 mass shooting when a white supremacist killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart.

Rep. Victoria Neave Criado, D-Dallas, called HB 4 “an attack on people of color, ... an attack on our Constitution, an attack on the basic principles of freedom [of] our state.”

Democrats also expressed concerns that Spiller’s bill would burden local law enforcement agencies across Texas, particularly in border communities.

During a Oct. 19 committee hearing, Elisa Tamayo, the director of government affairs for El Paso County, testified that her county would spend an estimated $186 million to house undocumented immigrants in local jails and expand jail capacity if HB 4 becomes law.

Other legislation

House lawmakers also approved HB 6, which would set aside $1.5 billion to construct, operate and maintain additional barriers along the Texas-Mexico border. The bill passed with an 84-61 party-line vote and was sent to the Senate for consideration.

Senate Bill 4, which would increase mandatory minimum sentences for smuggling humans and harboring undocumented migrants in “stash houses,” passed with a 92-54 vote. It is now headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature.

The House also passed SB 7, a proposal to prevent private employers from requiring employees, contractors or applicants to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The bill exempts health care facilities, which would be allowed to require unvaccinated employees to wear protective medical equipment, such as masks, when working with high-risk patients.

The bill, approved 91-54, now returns to the Senate for review of House changes.

The bills are all priorities of Abbott, who called the third special legislative session on border security, banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates and creating a program to help parents pay for private school tuition. The special session began Oct. 9 and can last through Nov. 7.

Action stalled on Abbott’s third priority, known as education savings accounts, or vouchers, after the Senate approved its version of the program Oct. 12. In an attempt to sway a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans, who are opposed to vouchers, House leaders filed a bill that combines education savings accounts with pay raises for public school teachers and increases to school funding.

But because public school funding is not on the governor’s agenda for the special session, the bill has not yet moved in the House.