With time running out, Texas Senate punts on taking action on border bill

State senators discuss a Point of Order on an amendment to the SJR 1 property tax bill to include a bonus for Texas teachers, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on the Senate floor during the first day of the second special session at the state Capitol in Austin on June 28. (Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune)

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The Texas Senate gaveled in and out on Sunday afternoon without discussing pending legislation, dimming the possibility of additional border security bills passing before the third special session concludes in two days.

The upper chamber was scheduled to take up House Bill 4, which would create a state crime to enter the state illegally from Mexico and would allow police officers to 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 the migrant and charge them with a misdemeanor, or a felony if they had crossed illegally multiple times.

But the Senate did not discuss the bill, instead recessing until Tuesday afternoon, the last day of the monthlong special session.

In a statement on Sunday, House speaker Dade Phelan said the Senate's failure to pass HB 4 was "extremely disappointing."

"The security of the border and the safety of Texans is far too important to be caught up in the Senate's gears of political machinations," Phelan said. "This bill was a priority of Governor Abbott's, and the House met that priority with decisive action. We did our part, and when the fourth called special session convenes, we will do so again."

Authored by Jacksboro Republican Rep. David Spiller, HB 4 represents lawmakers’ efforts to empower Texas law enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws. But lawyers say the bill is unconstitutional because federal courts have ruled that the federal government has sole jurisdiction on immigration matters.

Other Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns that the bill could lead to officers mistakenly arresting U.S. citizens who live in border towns if they don’t immediately have proof of citizenship.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized HB 4 in a statement last week, calling it a “Texas-sized-catch-and-release-bill” and arguing that it would allow immigrants who cross the border illegally to become repeat offenders.

“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.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granburg, offered a substitute bill last week that would allow police to incarcerate the immigrant who would await prosecution for a misdemeanor or felony. Under Birdwell’s bill, an immigrant who is convicted would then be transferred by an unspecified state agency to a port of entry to be turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for removal.

HB4 is one of several bills under consideration that aim to deter illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border, a top priority for Gov. Greg Abbott. The state has spent billions on Operation Lone Star, which Abbott launched in March 2021 in response to rising border crossings.

Another bill, House Bill 6 sponsored by Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, passed by the House would appropriate about $1.5 billion to construct border barriers along the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border. If that bill is approved, the state would have about 100 additional miles of border barrier by Sept. 2026.

Senate Bill 4, which has passed through both chambers, would increase the minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house.

Abbott has already said he would call a fourth special session if school vouchers did not become law. Lawmakers have been unable to agree on a voucher program, which would allow families to use taxpayer dollars on private school education.