Texas Civilians Joining Border Protection Unit Sparks Fears of ‘Vigilantes’

New Republican legislation in the Texas House includes the option for average citizens to take action as part of a border policing unit aimed at countering illegal immigration.

House Bill 20, authored by Republican Matt Schaefer, creates a Border Protection Unit in which commissioned officers and nonmembers of law enforcement can “arrest, apprehend or detain persons crossing the Texas-Mexico border unlawfully” in border-region counties.

Texas has been at the forefront of the immigration debate and took matters into its own hands early Wednesday morning, one day before the Trump-era Title 42 policy is set to expire. It was enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, sending migrants back to their home countries without a formal asylum process.

“The security of Texans and the sovereignty of this state have been threatened by the deadly activities of transnational cartels operating throughout this state and the United States,” the bill reads.

The bill also warns of the “lethal” quantities of opioids and fentanyl infiltrating the U.S. in addition to human trafficking operations harming women and children.

Aerial view of migrant people camping on the banks of the Rio Grande River as they wait to be processed by the Border Patrol El Paso Sector, Texas, after crossing from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on May 9, 2023. A Border Protection Unit was included in new Texas House legislation that would allow citizens and law enforcement personnel to detain migrants.
Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has argued that lifting the policy will not lead to migrant surges, instead warning Mexican citizens that smugglers are encouraging illegal entry for their own financial benefit.

The bill was initially struck down by House Democrats before being attached as an amendment to separate immigration-related legislation, House Bill 7, according to the Texas Tribune. The amendment was adopted after midnight, 90-51.

KERA reported that after being repeatedly asked during floor debate about the details related to the kind of force border unit members would be authorized to use and when, Schaefer did not offer specifics but said they would be based on regulations imposed by the Public Safety Commission.

“We are going to make sure that Texans are protected,” Schaefer said. “We are legislators, we are not executives.”

Newsweek reached out to Schaefer via email for comment.

Texas House Democrats argue that this legislation will lead to more “vigilantes” that could inspire additional racial profiling.

“What is to prohibit or stop a Border Protection Unit from setting up their post in Hispanic neighborhoods?” Texas Representative Erin Gámez said.

Priscilla Lugo, the justice advocate coordinator at Latino Justice, told KEYE that “all the hateful rhetoric that is being used to push these bills is being co-opted by people who are committing acts of violence against migrants.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who last week said that crimes resulting from illegal immigration are part of President Joe Biden’s “plan,” issued a statement Wednesday reiterating the Biden administration’s negative impact on cost and crime across Texas and the entire U.S.

“The brutal reality of Biden’s immigration agenda should shock the conscience of every American,” Paxton said in part. “His policies allow monstrous gang members, terrorists, human traffickers, drug dealers and violent criminals into our country and demonstrate that the president is willing to sacrifice American lives for his open-borders agenda.”

‘Unintended consequences’

Elissa Steglich, clinical professor at the University of Texas School of Law, told Newsweek that the timing of the Texas Republicans’ border legislation with Title 42 set to expire is “purely coincidental” and is based on the legislative session ending.

The state is taking advantage of the opportunity for “political grandstanding,” she said. “Certainly, the state of Texas [and] this administration has been consistent in articulating its concern for its dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s immigration policy; its articulated concern for the cost to Texas; and its insistence that it can and should kind of engage in its own border policy and strategy.”

Governor Greg Abbott launched “Operation Lone Star” in March 2021 because of increased levels of illegal immigration. It directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to “use available resources to enforce all applicable federal and state laws to prevent the criminal activity along the border, including criminal trespassing, smuggling, and human trafficking, and to assist Texas counties in their efforts to address those criminal activities.”

Operation Lone Star, which covers 48 counties mostly along or near the border, has caused “enormous” expenses, Steglich noted, including a recent authorization of another $4.6 billion.

“I don’t necessarily see that as we draw closer to the lifting of Title 42 that positions have changed at all,” she said. “I think it’s just as we come closer to a significant shift in in border policy on the federal level, the state of Texas is taking advantage of the opportunity to reassert its positions and concerns.”

Matthew Wilson, assistant political science professor at Southern Methodist University, told Newsweek that House Bill 20 could lead to “unintended consequences.”

He said that because long stretches of the Texas border are in rural communities that often lack the presence of law enforcement, individuals who own farms and ranches in such regions might have contributed to the new policy as a way to protect themselves and their properties.

“Many of the people who will be looking to do these apprehensions or to be citizen enforcers of immigration policy are likely to be armed,” Wilson said. “Even if they’re not going out intending to use lethal force, they’re likely to bring guns with them simply for self-protection in case things get out of control.

“And the recipes are there for misunderstandings, spur-of-the-moment decisions that could result in some tragic situations. I think that’s really the concern when citizens who are not trained law enforcement officials are seen as the enforcers of immigration policy.”

Monika Y. Langarica, staff attorney at the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, told Newsweek that Texas circumventing federal standards has led to policies “promoting violence and racial profiling” and put power in the hands of state officials, vigilante groups and individuals who can endanger lives.

“They also have the potential to induce deadly acts of hate,” she said. “This is yet another example of Republican-led states’ attempts to impose their anti-immigrant agenda on the nation. It is reckless, has gone too far, and must be stopped.”

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