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Gov. Abbott Looks to Militarize the Border With A New Anti-Immigrant Vigilante Force

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On March 10, 2023, Texas state Rep. Matt Schaefer, a Republican from Tyler, introduced HB20, a piece of legislation that would give Texas Governor Greg Abbott unprecedented power and would further militarize border communities. It is moving through the Texas legislature now.

HB20 would create a separate unit within the Texas Department of Public Safety, entirely under the authority of the Governor, dubbed the “Border Protection Unit,” which according to the Texas Civil Rights Project would “have the power to recruit people, including those with no experience, to police the Texas-Mexico border.”

Also according to the Texas Civil Rights Project:

“HB 20 is a major piece of State legislation outlined over 6 legislative articles to (a) create a novel “Texas Border Protection Unit” possibly comprised of deputized vigilante forces, housed under the Department of Public Safety and led by a “Border Protection Unit” Chief who reports directly to the governor  (b) heighten trespass charges for people apprehended while entering the State with a 3rd degree State felony and a minimum $10,000 fine  and (c) codify a State-level “Title 42” in Title 2 of the Texas Health Code – to stop and remove anyone entering Texas by land without appropriate medical review.”

Governor Abbott has already implemented several massively wasteful and dangerous programs, like “Operation Lonestar” and an attempt to construct a border wall, and has echoed the deadly white nationalist conspiracy theory about a so-called migrant “invasion.” The cruelty and chaos of his approach to the border apparently has no bottom. Now, Gov. Abbott wants to expand the already-massive law enforcement presence on the border and empower vigilantes to take immigration enforcement into their own hands, a dangerous precedent also seen in other issues such as Republican attacks on abortion access. 

HB20 will also not make border communities or the millions of people who live in them any safer. Texans, especially those from El Paso, know the horrific effects when individuals believe they are called to “protect” the border. The man who murdered 23 people in an El Paso Walmart in 2019 and who pleaded guilty to 90 counts of hate crimes earlier this year, “was mirroring rhetoric that continues to be used by some conservative political and media figures, saying that large-scale migration from south of the border is an ‘invasion’ and part of a ‘great replacement’ of white people by people of color,” according to the El Paso Matters

Even now, hard-right extremists are planning supportive rallies for HB20 under the banner of the same racist “invasion” conspiracy as the mass murderer who attacked El Paso in 2019.   

Despite the claims of its proponents, HB20 will not address real issues affecting Texans, like the growing fentanyl crisis that is plaguing our state. Republicans’ false conflation of fentanyl as an immigration issue is not only wrong, it is dangerous and does nothing to address the overdose deaths in our state. As Texas A&M Professor Aileen Teague, who studies the history of drug cartels in Mexico, explained to the Dallas Morning News, “dealers are using social media to traffic drugs while Texas is spending millions to build a border wall. Data on border drug seizures show that most of the drugs — especially fentanyl — are entering the U.S. through ports of entry, rather than other sections of the border.” Texas needs workable solutions to our state’s problems, that address the root causes of drug overdoses and that don’t vilify migrants seeking safety and protection. Texas leaders should listen to border residents and NGOs that provide support to migrants and asylum seekers. 

On April 12, 2023, hundreds of activists from across the state, including many from border regions, waited more than nine hours to testify against HB20, as it was scheduled for its first hearing before the State Affairs Committee during this Texas legislative session. Advocates are calling on Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan to vote no on the bill.  

According to Roberto Lopez, Beyond Borders Senior Advocacy Manager at the Texas Civil Rights Project:

“HB 20 is one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen at the Texas Legislature and aims to turn border communities into a war zone. Politicians are creating a Border Protection Unit, staffed by paramilitary and vigilante groups. This unit would have the power to chase and arrest people they think crossed the border illegally, with near full immunity. Not only would this program be detrimental to border communities, but the unit would have free range to operate throughout the state endangering Texans everywhere. Instead of wasting another $4 billion dollars in failed immigration programs, the Texas Legislature needs to invest in real solutions and humanitarian aid at the border. People crossing the border are doing so to seek safety and a better future, it is time we welcome them with dignity and not subject them to more danger.”

The state legislature has until May 29 to pass HB20, but this extreme and dangerous legislation should head to the dustbin of history, not to the Governor’s desk.