Two separate proposals were considered in committee hearings this week, including one that would expand the powers of federal border agents who work in Texas.
State lawmakers this week debated legislation that would allow U.S. Border Patrol agents to arrest, detain and search people suspected of violating state laws.
The proposal is one of several the Texas Legislature is considering as Republicans continue their laser focus on the border and what some call an “invasion” of unauthorized migrants and drug and human smugglers.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, authored Senate bill 602, which he said came after he met with Border Patrol officials in Laredo last year. He said that Border Patrol agents are only allowed to detain people suspected of committing a felony if they are waiting to be transferred to the custody of another law enforcement agency. And that can only happen at certain areas, such as checkpoints or ports of entry.
“The limitation on where Border Patrol can detain individuals means that they cannot detain a person suspected of committing a state felony when they are on patrol along the border,” Birdwell said Thursday during a hearing of the Texas Senate Border Security Committee.
The legislation would also allow Border Patrol agents to refer a person suspected of committing a state crime to local district attorneys directly instead of transferring them to another law enforcement agency.
Birdwell said his legislation would add to the overall effort local, state and federal law enforcement agencies are currently undertaking on the border. But state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, asked if the bill could instead take Border Patrol agents away from their primary duties on the front lines if they decided to instead pursue state crimes or traffic violations.
“My concern deals more with the bill itself in providing a sort of blanket authority including misdemeanors,” he said, adding that the legislation could be more effective if it was limited to felonies.
“Otherwise … they can get involved in so many cases it can be overwhelming,” he said.
Carl E. Landrum, the former chief patrol agent in Laredo, was invited to the committee as a witness and said he supports the bill without any exceptions. Sometimes a minor infraction can lead to the discovery that a more serious crime is taking place, he said.
“I do not believe they should be limited. Oftentimes you need the misdemeanor to get to the fentanyl in the trunk of the car,” he said, referring to the synthetic opioid that’s killed thousands of people across the country after being smuggled in from Mexico.
“So, I would not separate the two. I think you need both of those authorities to have full enforcement efforts.”
Lundrum, who retired earlier this year, said he was testifying on his own behalf, not the agency’s. Hinojosa said he’s heard feedback that some within the Border Patrol “are not necessarily in 100% support” of the legislation.
“Border Patrol agents are not trained for this type of enforcement, they have training to enforce immigration laws so that’s a concern that I have,” he said.
Later, state Sen. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, asked how agents would respond in the case of a high-speed pursuit. In January U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the agency will use more discretion when considering a high-speed pursuit. The directive, which came from the White House, won’t prohibit the tactic, but would instead require agents to justify in writing why they engaged in a high-speed chase and provide more oversight of those agents, the Washington Post reported.
“How would an agent interpret … federal law first, state law second? If the Biden administration has already provided directives saying limit your high-speed pursuits then does state law kick in?” he asked. “I am trying to figure out how that actually would work in a checkpoint and those types of scenarios.”