AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Senate Committee on Border Security on Thursday heard a bill that would create a state crime for illegally crossing the federal border. It’s the latest legislative effort to consolidate border enforcement authority at a time when Texas officials accuse the Biden Administration of ignoring the strain on border communities.
Senate Bill 2424 by State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would create a Class A misdemeanor for noncitizens who attempt to cross the Texas-Mexico border illegally. Additional offenses would be charged as felonies.
The power to patrol and prosecute border crimes is reserved for the federal government. But that’s not stopping top Texas Republicans from trying to push the limits of state power.
“As a result of the federal government’s unwillingness to enforce federal immigration laws and secure our southern border, the State of Texas has stepped up and devoted time and resources to combat the unprecedented border crisis that the state is facing,” the bill’s author analysis states.
If the bill becomes law, the federal government is expected to take swift legal action to assert its jurisdiction over the border. Experts agree it would not pass a court challenge.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense right now. I understand the intent and the aim, but when you look at practical matters, what will it change on the ground at this point? Nothing big,” said Dr. Victor Manjarrez, the director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. “They’re not bestowed immigration authority to actually determine alienation deportability.”
Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute at New York University, agrees the law is settled in the federal government’s favor. He points to the 2012 Supreme Court case Arizona v. United States, which affirmed that states cannot pass their own immigration laws.
“If it’s already a federal law, any other additional competing state laws will be considered preempted under the current Supreme Court doctrine,” Chishti said. “You cannot have fifty states have fifty foreign policies.”
It appears that some Texas Republicans hope to relitigate the issue, hoping to challenge that balance of power.
In a February interview, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan said he thinks the legislature “will have the opportunity to test those federal laws very soon.” His chamber’s House Bill 20 would create a Border Protection Unit under the Texas Department of Public Safety to enforce border security separate from federal Border Patrol agents.
“I expect there to be [legal challenges] full well. I expect it to be pretty immediate,” said AJ Louderback, executive director of the Texas Sheriffs’ Regional Alliance. “The authority rests with the federal government and that’s what they’ll contend.”
Former Border Patrol officials say that, while the Biden administration may balk at these laws, the federal agents on the ground appreciate Texas’ efforts.
“We always need more manpower. And currently, what the state’s doing to support border security is tremendous,” said Terrell County Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland, a former Border Patrol agent. “There’s just not enough Border Patrol agents and a lot of them are tied up doing things, watching over aliens that have been arrested. We need more support along the border. And I support that.”
Manjarrez is a former sector chief with U.S. Border Patrol. He says Texas supports federal law enforcement on the border better than any other state, even if the pending legislation is unconstitutional.
“I think if you go along the southern border and you were to ask Border Patrol agents, ‘Which Governor or which state supports Border Patrol more than any other?’ I think hands down it’s the state of Texas,” he said. “I think that bill goes to support Border Patrol agents… [but] it’s not going to have the desired impact at the end of the day.”
The Senate Committee on Border Security left SB 2424 pending on Thursday.
Chishti said while these bills may only advance anti-Biden talking points today, they could have long-term legal implications.
“These are not dumb people. They’re extremely smart people. Texas has become the ground zero of the polarization on immigration politics. They’re walking straight into that,” he said. “They may hope that they will get some judges which will be more sympathetic to Texas’ provision in this case, which would then create the possibility of overruling Arizona v. U.S.”
Who will challenge Ted Cruz in 2024?
Texas Democratic voters will head to the polls in less than a year to decide which candidate they’d like to see challenge Sen. Ted Cruz in his reelection bid, but at the moment the field remains empty because no one has jumped into the race yet.
Cruz already announced his intention of seeking a third term representing Texas in the Senate, which will almost certainly clear the path for the well-known Republican to secure his party’s nomination. Chuck DeVore, the chief national initiatives officer at conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, said issues like border security and rising inflation could help push Cruz past any challengers during the 2024 general election.
“If you just look at the environment within which the election is going to be run, then 2024 is going to be much more favorable for Sen. Cruz and getting reelected than was 2018,” DeVore said.
He also said another factor possibly benefiting Cruz is the lack of a clear Democratic frontrunner who can draw the same national attention and fundraising firepower as former Rep. Beto O’Rourke did in 2018. Cruz ended up narrowly winning that statewide election by two percentage points.
“I think the challenge is: who else is there in the state of Texas to be able to run that would then attract all those tens of millions of dollars from all over the country?” DeVore said. “I just don’t see that lightning in a bottle being captured twice.”
However, while Democrats are waiting to see who will enter the race, they may feel some optimism about their chances based on a recent poll showing Cruz’s unpopularity among Texas voters. During its February poll, the Texas Politics Project asked people how they would rate the jobs of these six Republican leaders: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Phelan, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Sen. John Cornyn and Cruz. The poll’s findings showed Cruz had the highest disapproval rating (46%) among these elected leaders, while his approval rating came in at 40%.
Joshua Blank, the research director for the Texas Politics Project, said Cruz’s poll numbers are driven by extremely negative rates of disapproval among Texas Democratic voters and marginally more negative rates of disapproval among independents compared to other statewide elected leaders.
“I think one of the advantages for any Democrat running against Sen. Ted Cruz is that he or she will not have to do much work defining Cruz for the voters,” Blank said. “Most voters know what they think about Ted Cruz, so the job becomes one of introducing themselves to the voters that they have to, but really focusing on mobilization and day-to-day campaigning.”
The guessing game is already underway about who will run in the Democratic primary. According to recent reporting from The Dallas Morning News, sources said Rep. Colin Allred, a former professional football player, is asking donors about potentially getting into the race. He flipped a competitive Congressional seat in 2018 and defeated a Republican incumbent in his Dallas-area district. If Allred runs for Senate, he would follow the path forged by O’Rourke where a Texas Congressman sought a seat in the upper chamber.
Ed Espinoza, a Texas Democratic analyst, said Allred’s name is coming up a lot in conversations he’s having right now.
“He could be a very strong candidate,” Espinoza said, “and the fact that he is in Congress already means he has access to federal money, federal PACs and such that could buy in his race. You saw that with Beto O’Rourke in 2018 as well, so [Allred] is one candidate who could be very competitive.”
Espinoza said there are also rumblings in Democratic circles about whether Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner may have his eye on this office.
“Sylvester Turner is at the end of his term of mayor. He’s termed out in Houston later this year,” he said. “Not only has he represented the biggest city in Texas, one of the biggest cities in America, but he also is suddenly about to have time on his hands — not a bad launching pad for someone looking to run statewide in Texas.”
Questions remain, Espinoza said, about whether one of the Castro brothers might also enter the Senate race. Julián Castro served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama and ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, while his twin Joaquin Castro is a Democratic Congressman representing San Antonio.
“Either of those two would be strong candidates if they decide to run now,” Espinoza said. “The thing about the Castros, they’re very popular. They’re very well known, and they’re very accomplished in the state. They’re also mentioned every time a statewide race comes up, and it’s not always what they choose to do. So will this time be different? We shall see.”
None of these men responded when KXAN reached out inquiring about their future plans.
Sources connected to local Democratic politics also threw out a few other names who may be in the mix, including former State Sen. Wendy Davis and former 2020 Senate candidate MJ Hegar.
Democratic candidates are already entering the races for both the California and Michigan Senate seats after longtime incumbents in those two states announced they’ll retire from office. However, Texas is not seeing that same quick action.
Espinoza expects Texas voters won’t likely find out who’s launching Senate campaigns here until the legislative session ends in May. He called that a “good mile marker” because the candidate filing period for next year’s Senate primary election begins on Nov. 11 and lasts until Dec. 11. He added that Democrats historically jump into statewide races later than Republicans do in Texas.
“Ultimately, I will say this: Democrats have been fielding much better candidates in Texas over the past 10 years. We’ve had much closer races,” Espinoza said, “so I do expect the 2024 election cycle to be a competitive one. I do think that voters deserve good candidates, and I think they’re going to get good candidates.”
Senate passes bill to toughen penalties for removing ankle monitors
On Monday, the Texas Senate passed a bill that would make it a crime for a person to knowingly remove or disable and ankle monitor tracking device that they’re required to wear as a condition of house arrest, parole or release on bail.
According to the bill’s author, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, 76,940 people are currently on parole in Texas and 4,315 of them have a monitoring device. She said in the last year, 1,127 monitor straps were either cut, or an active warrant remains for a cut strap.
Currently, it is only a parole violation to tamper with or destroy an ankle monitor. The bill would make it either a third-degree or state-jail felony to do so. A state jail felony, according to the Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA), is one step below a third-degree felony. The charges would also apply if the person used a third party to tamper with the device.
In a robbery spree that ended at The Domain in June 2022, the Austin Police Department said one of the suspects cut off his ankle monitor two days after getting released from juvenile custody — and about two weeks before he allegedly took part in the robberies.
“As we’re trying to move away from incarceration, we’re trying to use technology,” said TMPA Executive Director Kevin Lawrence. “But now we’re finding the more we use that, the more we find people trying to foil those methods.”
According to the witness list for the bill, no one spoke in opposition to it. It now goes to a House committee.
‘Meaningful’ bill protecting patient safety thanks to our investigation, lawmaker says
A state representative says she filed a “meaningful” patient safety bill in direct response to a series of KXAN investigations into systems that allow problem doctors to keep practicing in Texas.
“KXAN uncovered a problem, brought it to my attention,” said Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch. “We discussed. I met with policyholders. We’ve come together to form, I think, a piece of legislation that can make a meaningful impact into health safety and patient safety.”
On a cloudy day at the Texas Capitol, advocates point to Johnson’s bill as a bright spot. If passed, House Bill 1998 would require the Texas Medical Board to continually search the National Practitioner Data Bank for up-to-date physician disciplinary and criminal records — ensuring both that they are made public faster and stopping doctors with licenses revoked in other states from practicing in Texas.
Thirteen months ago, KXAN found nearly 50 doctors with licenses suspended, surrendered or revoked in other states able to or are still practicing in Texas with a clean record on their public physician profile.
“Your reporting, Matt, has brought a lot of troubling facts to light,” said Ware Wendell, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Texas Watch.
Wendell testified in favor of the bill, and added that the state needs to make sure the Texas Medical Board is “doing their job.”
Johnson said the TMB has been receptive and helped collaborate to make her bill “better.” Officially, the TMB’s position is that it is “neutral” and doesn’t comment on pending legislation. The TMB blamed funding and staffing problems for not being able to keep its public physician portal up to date, Johnson said.
Wendell said there is a “patient safety crisis” that’s preventable in Texas and across the country. On Monday, he and other advocates urged lawmakers at a House Public Health Committee hearing to pass Johnson’s bill.
“Matt Grant with KXAN has done yeoman’s work in identifying problems at the medical board,” Wendell told lawmakers. “Finding…nearly 50 doctors who have had problems in other states but were practicing here in Texas and we’re unaware of that as members of the public. Why? Because the Texas Medical Board wasn’t doing their job.”
The Texas Hospital Association said it has “concerns” over a planned requirement to report disciplinary actions lasting fewer than 30 days to the TMB. The National Practitioner Data Bank — a federal confidential clearinghouse of physician disciplinary actions — only collects actions lasting longer than 30 days.
The THA said it was concerned about the “practical impact” if hospitals had to report “minor” and “administrative infractions.”
For Johnson, it’s about transparency, accountability and protecting patients.
“The public has a right to know,” Johnson said. “Especially, if that disciplinary action is the result of patient care.”
New bills take aim at Texas program blocking driver license renewals over unpaid traffic tickets
The Texas program that allows judges to block driver license renewals over unpaid traffic tickets will face possible changes, and even repeal, this legislative session.
It comes after a KXAN investigation revealed more than 980,000 current court orders to block drivers from getting their licenses renewed, as of October 2022. Those were sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety vendor OmniBase.
Already, more than 445,000 Texans can’t get their license renewed or replaced if they are flagged under the state’s Failure to Appear and Pay program, according to DPS data.
The system, critics say, leaves some of the state’s poorest drivers in debt, without a license for years, and at risk for more charges — and even jail time — if they get on the road.
“I think a cynical person can say this just looks like a way for them to make money,” Bernal said. “This is not a street crime. [These are] traffic tickets. [These are] parking tickets.”
Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, has filed a bill to repeal the program. Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, has also filed legislation to require judges to lift the hold on someone’s license if they enter a payment plan or agree to do community service.
Right now, judges have the power to keep the hold even as defendants work to pay the tickets and court fees. OmniBase also adds a fee to the debt owed when judges submit an order to its system.
“What I am trying to do is make sure if someone is already complying with the program — they are not finished, but they are trying to make payments — they can get their license back,” Johnson said. “How else are they going to make payments if they can’t drive to work?”
Judge Brian Holman with the Texas Municipal Court Association says he fears the legislation will threaten the tools courts have to bring in traffic violators.
“I’m sure there are some circumstances where someone is doing the things they can do and the judge doesn’t remove that hold until they completely comply with that judgment,” Holman said.
“But the intent of Senate Bill 270 is to place a 10-year cap on the ability of a judge to use the OmniBase system,” Holman said. “I think all that’s going to do is encourage people not to come to court, not to try to resolve their outstanding judgments.”
Monica Sanchez found out just before her birthday she wouldn’t be able to renew her license over past unpaid parking tickets.
The mom of two was out of a job and going through a divorce at the time. She was unable to pay off all the fees she was facing.
Sanchez has been paying off her tickets slowly while working at a gas station. One of the few places, she said, that would hire her without a valid driver’s license.
“I feel like I am climbing a hill,” Sanchez said.
Karly Jo Dixon, a former attorney with Texas Fair Defense Project, has represented hundreds of people who are facing not being able to renew their license until they pay back tickets.
Dixon says the ticket debt often snowballs for poor drivers who can’t afford to clear the hold off their record.
“They get caught in this cycle. So, the first ticket, you know, might have been for speeding or for a headlight being out, you know, something that seems small, but when they couldn’t take care of it, then their driver’s license is suspended. And then they get a ticket for driving without a driver’s license,” Dixon said.
“Things start to snowball, and to where sometimes we’re talking about thousands of dollars, sometimes to multiple courts or jurisdiction […],” Dixon continued. “And folks don’t know how to untangle that.”