Senate Sends Border Security Measure to House

The Texas Senate on Monday passed its own sweeping border security bill, choosing to send its own version to the House rather than taking up the House’s measure, which the lower chamber passed last month.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, listens during a debate over Senate Bill 11 on March 18, 2015.

The Texas Senate on Monday passed its own sweeping border security bill, choosing to send its own version to the House rather than taking up the House’s measure, which the lower chamber passed last month.

Senate Bill 3 by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, is the upper chamber’s companion legislation for House Bill 11 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. Both measures would beef up the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border; create a Rio Grande Valley intelligence center to analyze border crime information; establish a team of retired DPS officers to assist with background investigations and sex offender compliance; and increase penalties for human smuggling.

But the Senate’s bill would keep the Texas Army National Guard on the border until the DPS is considered to be fully staffed in the region.

"Now that the Texas Senate has overwhelmingly passed its state budget, funding border security at historic levels [$811 million], it was the appropriate time to pass SB 3," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in a statement. 

The Senate approved SB 3 in a 26-4 vote, with Sens. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston; José Rodríguez, D-El Paso; Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; and José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, voting in opposition. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

"I'm extremely proud of the bipartisan support for SB 3, which will help the Department of Public Safety sustain and appropriately expand their successful efforts to tackle these problems statewide," Birdwell said in a statement.

SB 3 doesn’t set a specific timeline on the Guard’s withdrawal. It states that the “deployment of Texas National Guard troops to the border region is needed until the Texas Department of Public Safety has the personnel to fully secure the border region without the assistance of the Texas National Guard Troops.”

The House passed HB 11 in March. It was introduced as part of a package with House Bill 10, which addressed human trafficking, and House Bill 12, which codifies the duties of the state’s border prosecution unit. Like Bonnen’s measure, however, the two have yet to have a hearing in a Senate committee.

The Senate’s budget also contrasts with the House’s version in the amount appropriated for border security. The two chambers are about $300 million apart, in part because of the Senate’s desire to keep the National Guard deployed for an extended period of time.

The Senate’s bill also requires DPS to study the usefulness of southbound checkpoints within 250 yards of the border to prevent the smuggling of guns and illicit cash. Birdwell amended his bill to make clear the agency doesn’t need to get additional legislative approval to establish the checkpoints.

The measure passed with little opposition, mainly in part to Birdwell’s promise to keep more controversial measures, including the so-called sanctuary cities legislation, off his bill. That measure — Senate Bill 185 by Charles Perry, R-Lubbock — is pending legislation that would give local law enforcement expanded immigration enforcement powers. Birdwell also pledged to keep any version of Senate Bill 1819 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, off his proposal. That bill would eliminate a 2001 law that allows noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

Rodríguez unsuccessfully offered several amendments to SB 3. One sought to add an oversight committee similar to one contained in the House’s bill. The committee would receive reports and testimony on border security operations to gauge their success. Another amendment would have required National Guard members to undergo cultural and sensitivity training. Rodríguez also sought to improve border infrastructure on key trade routes but failed.

Before voting against the measure, Rodríguez told Birdwell he had several concerns about whether elements of the bill would be deemed unconstitutional, specifically the southbound checkpoint provisions and some of the human-smuggling language.