Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
Discord between the Republicans who control Texas government threatened to inflict another casualty Thursday — border security bills that conservative lawmakers agree on in principle.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said in an afternoon statement that House Bill 4, which would create a state crime to enter the state illegally from Mexico, was nothing more than a “Texas-sized catch-and-release bill.”
“HB 4 does not require proper identification of suspects, fingerprints, or a background check and allows illegal border crossers to return whenever they want, time and time again,” Patrick said.
An hour later, House Speaker Dade Phelan shot back. He defended the bill, which he said was drafted with Gov. Greg Abbott, as the strongest border measure ever passed by the lower chamber. And he accused the Senate, under Patrick’s leadership, of promoting its own “pro-illegal immigration” version of the bill.
“The Senate’s response to the threat of illegal immigration is to establish a long-term, state-funded hospitality program for illegal immigrants,” Phelan said, referencing the Senate plan to detain migrants long-term in state facilities.
The public feuding — the latest in a series of barbs between the legislative leaders that began in the spring over property taxes and festered over the summer during the impeachment and trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton — calls into doubt whether the Legislature will pass HB 4 before the third special session ends on Tuesday.
Abbott, meanwhile, was out of pocket on an unannounced visit to Israel. But even in Austin, he has been unable to broker a truce between the chambers. Just 24 hours ago, the House torpedoed any chance of a deal on school vouchers — Abbott’s top legislative priority — hours after Patrick suggested a path to passage via amending the version senators had already approved.
But while the Republicans who control the House and Senate have major disagreements over vouchers, which would allow parents to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools, conservative lawmakers universally want to improve border security and crack down on illegal immigration.
The inability of the chambers to pass legislation despite that consensus is a testament to how much relations have deteriorated.
HB 4, by Jacksboro Republican Rep. David Spiller, states that if a police officer has evidence a person crossed the southern border illegally, the officer could detain and transport that person to a port of entry and order them to return to Mexico — even if they’re not a Mexican citizen. If the immigrant refuses, the officer would arrest them and the immigrant would be charged with a misdemeanor — or a felony if they had crossed the Rio Grande multiple times.
Earlier this week, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, substituted HB 4 with his version of the legislation, changing key language.
Birdwell’s version of HB 4 would also create a state crime to enter the country illegally from Mexico. Police, however, would incarcerate the immigrant, who would await prosecution for a misdemeanor or felony. If convicted, after the immigrant serves their sentence, a judge would order an unspecified state agency to transport the immigrant to a port of entry to be turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for removal.
Lawyers say both versions of the bill are unconstitutional because the U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that immigration matters are solely the responsibility of the federal government. They also say that under Spiller’s version, it would be illegal for Texas to deport immigrants to Mexico, especially if they are not Mexican citizens. In Birdwell’s version, the lawyers said that holding someone in custody after serving their sentence is a civil rights violation. They also said that a state judge can’t order a federal immigration agent on what to do with an immigrant.
Spiller and Birdwell have said the bill is meant to target people who recently crossed the border illegally and not undocumented immigrants who crossed through another state and currently live in Texas or have been here longer than two years — the statute of limitations for misdemeanors.
Both chambers have also passed separate bills that would fund $1.5 billion for new border barriers. But with little time in the special session it’s unclear if either piece of legislation would be approved by both chambers on time.
The House version, approved last Thursday, would use the money to erect a fence along different parts of the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border and lay out a water barrier like the 1,000-foot-long buoys currently in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass.
Instead of advancing that bill, the Senate this week chose to advance its own version, which would also appropriate most of the money for border barriers and allocate $40 million to pay for state troopers to have a presence on Colony Ridge, a Houston suburb that far right publications have said, without showing evidence, is a magnet for undocumented immigrants.
On Thursday, Phelan appeared to express frustration that his chamber had been “stalled in the Senate for over a week.”
“Texans are watching and waiting for the Senate to match their words with action,” he said.
Patrick responded hours later, saying that the House bill left out funding for Colony Ridge and that the House should "just pass the Senate bill."
"I don’t pay attention to you anymore and neither does anyone else," Patrick wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "You’ve become the teacher character from the 'Peanuts' series. When you talk, all we hear is, 'Wah wah woh wah wah.'"
Even if the leaders of the two chambers get past their squabbling, time is running out for the Legislature to reach an agreement on the bills. The Senate met briefly Thursday and recessed until Sunday afternoon — two days before the deadline for the special session to end.
The House, meanwhile, has indicated it will only convene again after the Senate passes out its two border bills.