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Lawmakers draw battle lines on border security, sanctuary cities

On the same day that Texas House Republicans doubled down on border security efforts and announced plans to send an invoice to the federal government, Senate Democrats said they were committed to fighting bills to eliminate sanctuary cities.

Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, on the House floor on May 7, 2015.

House Republicans on Wednesday said they aren’t backing away from recent efforts to secure the southern border despite an incoming president who made beefed-up immigration enforcement a hallmark of his campaign.

And as a final admonishment of President Obama, they said they intended to bill the federal government more than $2.8 billion for state spending on border security since January 2013. The amount includes a combination of expenses incurred by the Department of Public Safety ($1.4 billion), Texas Parks and Wildlife ($20.2 million), Texas Military Forces ($62.9 million), Texas Health and Human Services ($416.8 million), the Texas Education Agency ($181.1 million) and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission ($671,000), according to House Republicans. Another $723.8 million has been spent by local and state governments related to incarceration, they said.

“We understand the principles of federalism, and while we surely don’t want the federal government meddling in our schools and deciding our environmental policies or setting our health care policies, we sure as heck want them doing their limited duties, which are: enforcing the border, standing up for a strong military and delivering the mail,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Two years ago, Bonnen was the author of House Bill 11, an omnibus border security measure that increased by 250 the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border. The legislation was part of the record $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security during that legislative session.

Lawmakers learned earlier this week they will have billions of dollars less in state revenue to work with this year as they craft the next biennial budget, even as the Department of Public Safety has said it would ask lawmakers for an additional $1 billion for border security. Bonnen said he hadn’t yet reviewed the request.

Although they said they had high hopes that President-elect Trump would fulfill his promise to secure the border and let Texas off the hook, House Republicans reiterated that lawmakers will need to wait and see what the incoming administration does and how soon it acts on border security before making a decision on future expenditures.

“We’ll have to see, [but] I think the Trump administration has made clear that they intend from day one, starting next Friday, to get to work on this issue,” Bonnen said, citing the day of Trump's scheduled inauguration.

State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, left the door open to Texas lawmakers approving more funding for state-based border security efforts if necessary.

“Republicans in the Texas House are absolutely committed to continuous border security — be it from the state of Texas and what we’ve been doing all these years or from our federal government,” he said.

Part of Trump’s proposed solution includes building a wall along parts of the southern border. When asked what he would tell a Texas landowner whose property could be seized by the federal government for that effort, Bonnen said: “My response would be whatever we need to do to make our border secure and controlled by the federal government.”

State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, a staunch opponent of the state’s recent border security surge, said Wednesday's news conference by House Republicans was nothing more than a last “political dig at President Obama." He added that the Department of Public Safety hasn’t demonstrated that its recent efforts have been effective.

“You hear a lot about spending dollars into one agency, in DPS, and we’ve seen no accountability,” Blanco said. “I think it’s just politics as usual, and I think Republicans probably need one last border security bill so they can go back to their districts and [successfully] run for office.”

House Republicans gathered to emphasize their continued focus on border security on the same day that Senate Democrats on the east side of the Capitol maintained they would fight against proposed state-based immigration legislation until the last gavel of the session drops in late May.

State Sens. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, joined with members of the faith-based and immigrant rights communities to denounce a bill from state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, which would eliminate sanctuary cities — the common term for local governments that do not enforce federal immigration laws — and withhold state funds from local entities that adopt sanctuary policies. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have both pledged to eliminate sanctuary cities in Texas this session.

“We will fight this to the finish — no more and no less. We are not going to be silent in the face of these attacks on our communities,” Rodríguez said. He and others said such bills would lead to discrimination and allow local law enforcement officers to question someone’s immigration status.

Perry’s bill includes language that prohibits local law enforcement from stopping a vehicle or searching a business or dwelling unless the officer is assisting a federal officer or working under an agreement with the federal government that allows the practice.

But Rodríguez said he has concerns that the law could still be interpreted so broadly as to allow more widespread questioning by local police.

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Courts Criminal justice Demographics Immigration Politics 85th Legislative Session Budget Charles Perry Dennis Bonnen Department of Public Safety