Legislation giving law enforcement more power along the border moves forward at the Texas Capitol
State lawmakers this week debated legislation that would allow U.S. Border Patrol agents to arrest, detain and search people suspected of violating state laws.
The proposal is one of several the Texas Legislature is considering as Republicans continue their laser focus on the border and what some call an “invasion” of unauthorized migrants and drug and human smugglers.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored Senate bill 602, which he said came after he met with Border Patrol officials in Laredo last year. He said that Border Patrol agents are only allowed to detain people suspected of committing a felony if they are waiting to be transferred to the custody of another law enforcement agency. And that can only happen at certain areas, such as checkpoints or ports of entry.
“The limitation on where Border Patrol can detain individuals means that they cannot detain a person suspected of committing a state felony when they are on patrol along the border,” Birdwell said Thursday during a hearing of the Texas Senate Border Security Committee.
The legislation would also allow Border Patrol agents to refer a person suspected of committing a state crime to local district attorneys directly instead of transferring them to another law enforcement agency.
Birdwell said his legislation would add to the overall effort local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are currently undertaking on the border. But state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, asked if the bill could instead take Border Patrol agents away from their primary duties on the front lines if they decided to instead pursue state crimes or traffic violations.
“My concern deals more with the bill itself in providing a sort of blanket authority including misdemeanors,” he said, adding that the legislation could be more effective if it was limited to felonies.
“Otherwise … they can get involved in so many cases it can be overwhelming,” he said.
Carl E. Landrum, the former chief patrol agent in Laredo, was invited to the committee as a witness and said he supports the bill without any exceptions. Sometimes a minor infraction can lead to the discovery that a more serious crime is taking place, he said.
“I do not believe they should be limited. Oftentimes you need the misdemeanor to get to the fentanyl in the trunk of the car,” he said, referring to the synthetic opioid that’s killed thousands of people across the country after being smuggled in from Mexico. “So, I would not separate the two. I think you need both of those authorities to have full enforcement efforts.”
Lundrum, who retired earlier this year, said he was testifying on his own behalf, not the agency’s. Hinojosa said he’s heard feedback that some within the Border Patrol “are not necessarily in 100% support” of the legislation.
“Border Patrol agents are not trained for this type of enforcement, they have training to enforce immigration laws so that’s a concern that I have,” he said.
Later, state Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, asked how agents would respond in the case of a high-speed pursuit. In January U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the agency will use more discretion when considering a high-speed pursuit. The directive, which came from the White House, won’t prohibit the tactic, but would instead require agents to justify in writing why they engaged in a high-speed chase and provide more oversight of those agents, the Washington Post reported.
“How would an agent interpret … federal law first, state law second? If the Biden administration has already provided directives saying limit your high-speed pursuits then does state law kick in?” he asked. “I am trying to figure out how that actually would work in a checkpoint and those types of scenarios.”
Landrum said he wasn’t aware of a policy that forbids high-speed chases and said that in general, law enforcement work is “inherently dangerous.”
“We’re looking for additional ways, additional capacities, to really bolster enforcement and thereby reduce the actual criminal episode,” he said. “When subjects are being recruited to come in and commit these crimes, it’s with a general belief that there is not much of an enforcement action on the back end of that.”
Birdwell, who chairs the committee, later pointed out that Texas has granted state law enforcement powers to 15 federal agencies, including the Secret Service, Department of Veterans Affairs and special divisions within the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force and Department of State. Except for the Secret Service, however, those enforcement powers don’t apply to misdemeanors. Birdwell left his bill pending and said he would take his colleagues’ concerns into account before calling for a vote to advance the bill.
“Maybe we go state jail felony and up, so let myself and the members discuss that,” he said. “I think we’re on the right track. The committee process provides some refinement.”
The hearing before the Texas Senate Border Security Committee came the same week a separate House committee advanced a proposal that would allow peace officers from anywhere in the state to temporarily train and work on the border.
House bill 1675, by state Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall, would create a border training program where local agencies would partner with state law enforcement on border-enforcement missions.
“This program will allow local law enforcement jurisdictions across the state to partner with DPS and the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to voluntarily send their officers to border counties to work with DPS troopers and gain valuable training on human and drug trafficking that they can take back to their communities,” Holland said before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.
The proposal comes as thousands of Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard soldiers are currently deployed to the border under Operation Lone Star, which began in 2021 on the orders of Gov. Greg Abbott.
“This will help meet the demand for additional manpower in the area by sending peace officers voluntarily across the state to border area to perform specific duties laid out by DPS,” Holland added.
The legislation also calls for participating agencies to assist and cooperate with local county and district attorneys' offices in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed along the border.
Charles Maley, the advocacy director for the South Texas Property Rights Association, testified in favor of the bill and said it could fill in some of the current gaps that exist under Operation Lone Star.
“One of the frequent comments we hear from law enforcement is, ‘We're arresting the offenders, but no one is prosecuting them, or they're just turning them loose,’” he said. “From prosecutors we hear, ‘They can't seem to get the paperwork right.’ You can't file someone else's investigation papers, and an agency-to-agency hand off won't work if the arresting agency won't show up at trial.”
The bill left committee on a bipartisan vote and will next go before the Texas House for full consideration.
Birdwell and Holland’s proposals are just two bills the Texas Legislature will consider this session, with more controversial measures soon to follow. They include House Bill 20 — legislation that would form a new state law enforcement unit on the border with broad powers of enforcement, including certain immunity for its members. Birdwell has also authored a separate proposal, Senate bill 2424, that would create a new offense in the state for entering Texas illegally. The enforcement wouldn’t be limited to the border region and instead apply statewide.
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