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Far-Reaching Border Security Bill Clears First Hurdle

After several reassurances from House members about what a border security bill is not intended to do, the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety voted out the sweeping measure on Wednesday.

A view of the Texas-Mexico border from El Paso.

As a House committee endorsed a broad border security bill Wednesday, its members sought to reassure critics who worried the bill would allow for someone to be prosecuted for human smuggling for driving his or her undocumented grandmother home.

House Bill 11 was voted unanimously out of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety following almost four hours of testimony. The legislation seeks to bolster the ranks of the Texas Department of Public Safety, enhance penalties for human smuggling and, ultimately, end the deployment of the Texas National Guard in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

A floor debate on the measure could be scheduled for as early as next week.

Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the bill’s author, told committee members that the bill has evolved considerably since it was filed last week. New language laid out Wednesday addresses most of the concerns from the immigrant and faith-based communities, he added.

The original language said that a person could be charged with smuggling if he or she “recklessly” transported or harbored an undocumented immigrant. The bill now says that the person must have “knowingly” smuggled someone for profit to warrant charges.

“If you’re taking a relative [home], they can’t do anything to you,” Bonnen said after the first part of the committee hearing. “Recklessly is ‘I should have known better.’ The knowingly is, ‘I made a conscious choice to smuggle and put them in a harmful situation.’”

Bonnen said that a provision allowing for a person’s right to an affirmative defense to a possible smuggling charge was added back to the bill after being inadvertently omitted. An affirmative defense allows a person the chance to introduce facts or other evidence that negates a criminal charge. 

Despite the reassurances, it was clear that confusion about the bill still lingered after the committee reconvened Wednesday afternoon. Several pastors expressed additional concerns about being in violation of the law for “doing God’s work.”

Austin-based Pastor Eugene Hilderbrand said his congregation serves people who might be in the country without documents.

“We assume [they] don’t have papers, but we have a policy where we don’t ask that question,” he said. “I am concerned that because of our policy, the ‘knowingly’ part, I don’t know if we’d be in violation.”

State Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, said a person had to knowingly smuggle or harbor and encourage or induce someone to come to the country illegally to be in violation under the bill’s provisions.

Nevárez, whose Eagle Pass home sits near the Rio Grande, said he leaves tins of food and bottles of water on his property so people who have crossed illegally “don’t die or break in” to his house. He said he wouldn’t be in violation for doing that.

“Have I encouraged or induced someone to come over?” he said. “What we did is put an ‘and’ and put those things together. You can’t have one without the other.”

An amendment by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, reinserted language making the smuggling provision specific to a person who “intends to conceal the individual” from a peace officer or  investigator.

“It creates a laser focus on folks that are engaging in smuggling for financial gain,” he said about the amendment. “We want to make this bill so it doesn’t have any unintended consequences for those [church] folks.”

The bill also seeks to expedite the hiring of DPS officers, which agency officials said are in dire need on the border. The House Appropriations Committee last week gave tentative approval to an agency request of $105 million for 300 additional troopers, 250 of which would be stationed on the border by the end of the 2017.

Bonnen said his bill doesn’t specify how troopers are placed throughout the state. The DPS and House budget writers would make those decisions, he said. But his bill includes a provision that would allow a peace officer with four years of experience apply to DPS and be hired as a “Level II” trooper with incentivized pay.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said that although he supported HB 11 overall, he had concerns about whether the DPS hiring push would lure officers away from local agencies.

“The pay scale is going to be one big issue. We are starting our deputy sheriffs at $37,000 [annually],” he said. “DPS is going to start them off at $57,000. Either way, we know we’re going to be losing probably the best people we have on the force.”

Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said he would work with local law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley to help make sure they remain properly staffed.

A Texas Senate subcommittee on border security is scheduled to hear that chamber's version, Senate Bill 3 by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, next week. 

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