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Texas border bill: More troopers, fewer surges

Texas state lawmakers on Monday made a bipartisan pitch for an omnibus border security bill that would speed up hiring of more Department of Public Safety troopers and establish a physical repository for crime statistics on the border.

House Bill 11, by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, contains controversial measures including re-establishing state police checkpoints on the border to check southbound travelers for contraband, and making it a crime to “encourage or induce” a person to remain in the country illegally. 

The proposal would also increase a typical workday for border DPS officers from eight hours to 10 for a five-day workweek. It would allow peace officers with four years of experience to join the DPS at a Trooper II level, which pays about $63,000 annually, according to DPS figures.

Bonnen’s HB 11 would also create a “DPS Officer Reserve Corps” of retired troopers to help with things like background investigations and sex-offender compliance. It would require local law enforcement agencies to use the National Incident-Based Reporting System to make crime-statistics reporting uniform statewide.

One detail missing from the announcement, however, was the effort's price tag. The House’s proposed border security budget hovers near $400 million, andthe Senate’s $815 million.

Where his plan's costs would fall, Bonnen said,depends in part on how many troopers the agency needs immediately, which Bonnen said would be decided by House budget writers.

“The appropriations committee will decide how many troopers they want to put initially into the DPS force across the state,” Bonnen said.

The bill seeks to put an end to the occasional law enforcement surges the state has relied on for years, including the current DPS and National Guard surge that began last summer.

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“What we’re here doing today is we’re stopping the fits and stops, we’re stopping the surge,” he said. “We are creating a long-term plan that Texans can count on. It will take some time to get more troopers trained and on the border but we are confident we can do that sooner than later.”

Bonnen insistedhis bill is not an immigration-enforcement measure. The southbound border checkpoints manned by DPS, he said would bestrictly to enhance security, not to check a person’s legal status in the country.

“[Immigration is] a word we don’t use around here,” he said. “This is simply about securing our border. We don’t get into the issue of immigration.” 

He added that the language in the bill making it a crime to “encourage or induce” a person to stay in the country unlawfully would not extend to immigration clinics that educate undocumented immigrants on certain federal immigration initiatives, like the White House’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Some border Democrats, who usually balk at law enforcement surges and accuse leadership of “militarizing” the border, said the end goal is to have a steady law enforcement presence in the area without deployment of troops.

“I think at the end of the day, the objective is to weed out the National Guard,” said state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission. “The problem is everybody knows we need troopers, but we can’t get them out of the academy in time.”

McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said the information center that’s being pitched would educate lawmakers on the reality of border crime. Local law enforcement agencies would take the lead on that proposal, with assistance from DPS when needed. 

“It gives an ability to have all the locals work together on a real time basis and give the rest of the state a point of reference for any border issue that comes up,” he said.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said lawmakers should ensure that the proposed checkpoints don’t interfere with lawful trade. In 2013, the U.S. and Mexico traded about $517 billion worth of goods. About half traveled through Texas ports, according to an interim study on border wait times. And in 2014 there were about 80,300,000 legal border crossings and about 241,000 illegal crossings, Anchia said, citing committee testimony.

“Border communities know very intimately the importance of having a flexible border that allows trade and commerce,” said Anchia, chairman of the House International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

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But Anchia, a fiery critic of state-based immigration enforcement proposals, also said he trusted Bonnen to let the bill remain free of those controversial issues.

“I like Chairman Bonnen a great deal and I think he’s a very effective floor manager,” he said. “I believe he is the right guy for the job.”

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Julian Aguilar/Texas Tribune

Texas state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, discusses his border security bill.