HOUSTON – To Gov. Greg Abbott, signing a sweeping, multimillion-dollar border security bill hundreds of miles from the Rio Grande made sense.
“Here in Houston, there are more than 20,000 dangerous gang members that are associated with cross border traffic-related crime,” Abbott said Tuesday as he was flanked by lawmakers and peace officers at a Texas Department of Public Safety facility. “More than 100,000 of those gang members operate across the state of Texas.”
His signature on House Bill 11, by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is the final piece of a massive effort by lawmakers during the 84th Legislature to bolster the ranks of state police, increase technology and establish intelligence operations units on the Texas-Mexico border. The bill has a price tag of about $310 million and is part of an $800 million border security effort.
The measure will facilitate the hiring of additional troopers and give the Department of Public Safety the authority to expedite the hiring of certain military veterans who have been honorably discharged. It also increases penalties for human smuggling and creates a transnational intelligence center on the border to analyze crime data. In addition, the law continues the operations of the Texas National Guard on the border until the department can hire and train up to 250 troopers to be permanently stationed in the area.
The bill signing comes on the heels of a legislative session that saw the department and border Democrats repeatedly spar over what the lawmakers alleged was a lack of transparency at the state police force.
Opponents of increased border-security spending demanded the department produce statistics to prove that the massive border surge, which began last summer in response to the flood of undocumented immigrants who breached the border illegally, was working. Instead, the department would only release data on apprehensions and drug seizures performed by all law enforcement agencies participating in the surge, including local and federal police.
When Abbott was asked by a reporter what problem HB 11 was intended to fix considering crime in the Rio Grande Valley is at an all-time low, he instead emphasized the statewide impact of cross-border crime.
"According to [Department of Homeland Security Secretary] Jeh Johnson, who spoke here in Houston, Texas, yesterday, we still have more than 25,000 people come across the border illegally every month," Abbott said.
The governor also sidestepped a question about two unsuccessful legislative proposals. One would have ended in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants and another would have banned so-called sanctuary cities – local governments that prohibit law enforcement officers from enforcing immigration laws. Both topics were hot-button campaign issues for Republican lawmakers.
When asked if he was disappointed they didn’t make it to his desk, he instead focused on how the federal government’s efforts to secure the border have fallen flat.
“The issues exist in the first place because we have a failed federal government that has refused to address the issues to tackle those problems,” he said. “Those are national, federal-based issues that we demand the United States federal government address and solve. Texas is doing what is can do by passing this border security plan.”
Though he called House Bill 11 the cornerstone of the state’s efforts to protect and seal the border, he also lauded the passage of House Bill 10, which enhances penalties for human trafficking and House Bill 12, which codifies the duties of the state's border prosecution unit. Abbott also indicated he was eager to sign a resolution that urges Congress to reimburse Texas the nearly $700 million the state has spent on border security operations since 2012.
“Texas is willing to shoulder the responsibility; we expect the federal government to foot the bill,” he said.