Hundreds of Texans converged on the capital this week to oppose a new state-led security force that would enlist civilians to track and capture undocumented people.
In a hearing that stretched into the wee hours of the morning Wednesday, the Texas House of Representatives heard testimony from first-generation college students, undocumented activists, parents, and children about the inherent dangers of House Bill 20. The author of the controversial proposal, Republican Rep. Matt Schaefer, meanwhile, was grilled by his Democratic counterparts over his bill’s logical and constitutional implications.
In his most extensive public defense of his bill to date, Schaefer, the founder and chair of the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, collapsed the issues of fentanyl overdoses and migration, ignoring facts and evidence to argue that migrants are responsible for a wave of death and suffering that exceeds the worst episodes of national trauma in modern American history. Pointing to national overdose statistics, he described “a scale of death far greater than Pearl Harbor, the attacks on 9/11, or the totality of the Vietnam War.”
“So much fentanyl is coming across the border, it’s unreal,” the Texas lawmaker said before proceeding to conflate and misrepresent several issues regarding migration and drugs.
As federal officials, border researchers, and journalists have documented ad nauseam, most fentanyl illegally trafficked into the United States comes through U.S. ports of entry, often in vehicles driven by U.S. citizens; according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data cited in Wednesday’s hearing, 86 percent of defendants convicted of smuggling fentanyl through ports of entry are U.S. citizens.
Migrants, on the other hand, overwhelmingly cross the border between ports of entry, thanks to successive bipartisan policies that have made admission at the ports — including pursuit of asylum claims — all but impossible. Customs officers who work the ports where most of the drugs are crossing are distinct from the Border Patrol agents who work between them, undermining a central argument Schaefer made that Mexican organized crime uses migrants to pull away U.S. officials who would otherwise be intercepting drug flows.
“Many of them are coming here just for a better life and make wonderful neighbors,” Schaefer said of the migrants themselves, but “some of them are criminals — rapists, gang members, MS-13.” To address the threat, Schaefer has proposed the “Border Protection Unit,” a new security force composed of law enforcement personnel and private individuals alike, answering directly to the governor in a mission to “arrest, detain, and deter individuals crossing the border.”
Schaefer’s bill, which Texas Democrats have dubbed the “vigilante death squads policy,” was among a bundle of proposals lawmakers heard Wednesday that would create a parallel, state-led border and immigration enforcement apparatus in Texas.
The bills are part of an explicit GOP effort to provoke a legal fight that would ultimately overturn Arizona v. United States, a 2012 Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar set of policies in Arizona as unconstitutional. Republican thought leaders, both on the border and in Washington, believe that the current conservation composition of the court is inclined to reverse the decision.
Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchía drilled down on whether the intent of Schaefer’s bill was to undo the Supreme Court case.
“The intent of the bill is to assert the authority of the state of Texas under the United States Constitution,” Schaefer told him.
“Is there a reason you’re being cagey and coy and not wanting to answer?” Anchía asked.
“I’ve answered your question,” Schaefer replied.
Rep. Chris Turner, also a Democrat, pressed Schaefer about the fundamentals of his proposal as it related to drug overdoses, asking where the majority of the fentanyl smuggled into the U.S. comes from.
“The southern border,” Schaefer said.
“Where specifically?” Turner asked.
“I think there’s some debate about that, Representative,” Schaefer replied. “I think you’re going to hear some say that most of it comes through the ports of entry.” Others, he added, without specifying who, will say “a lot of it comes through in between the ports of entry, but I think in a way it’s distinction without a difference.”
Turner noted that seizure data from Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency responsible for border security, shows that more than 90 percent of the fentanyl trafficked into the U.S. comes through the ports.
Though he used CBP’s figures concerning the apprehension of people at the border repeatedly throughout his testimony, Schaefer said he did not trust the data. At one point, the Republican lawmaker attempted to turn the tables, pressing Turner to tell him the last time he had visited the border.
“We’re gonna talk about your bill, and I’m gonna get to ask you the questions,” Turner said. “I don’t represent a border community, and last I checked, you don’t represent a border community, so we’re both talking about a region of the state that neither one of us represents, frankly.”
Schaefer’s hometown of Tyler, Texas, is more than 500 miles from the border, closer to Arkansas than Mexico.
“What I’m trying to get to is the data and the facts, and the facts indicate that we know fentanyl is a huge crisis in our country,” Turner said. “We have a lot of different strategies that we can use to deal with that. I don’t think your bill addresses fentanyl at all. That’s that’s my problem with your claims.”
Schaefer’s proposal came at the end of a grueling day of testimony involving multiple bills that would effectively institutionalize Operation Lone Star, a $4 billion program that Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott authorized in 2021. The program has been riddled with scandal — including the deaths of National Guard personnel and systemic civil rights violations that have led to a Justice Department investigation — while making no discernable impact on the illicit movement of drugs or people across the border.
By midday, more than 300 people were registered to testify on Schaefer’s bill, nearly all of them in opposition. Many drove across the state to make their voices heard and did so despite the fact that Schaefer didn’t rise to defend his bill until after 9 p.m.
Across four hours of testimony, one speaker after another blasted the proposal as racist, sloppy, dangerous, and unnecessary.
Undocumented activist María Treviño recalled the “dark history” of a state-backed vigilante groups targeting Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Texas.
“This bill doubles down on these racist and illegal activities by potentially training and employing anti-immigrant hate groups,” Treviño said. “I oppose this pricey, xenophobic, and unconstitutional legislation that undermines the separation of powers of our country and believe that Texas legislators should instead prioritize the health of our residents.”
The youngest of the speakers was 9-year-old Asher Vargas, the son of a firefighter, who took the microphone late in the evening.
With Schaefer sitting behind him in the front row of the hearing room, Vargas told the lawmakers about his shifts volunteering at the local migrant shelter, folding clothes, preparing meals, and, with his dad’s help, arranging travel plans for families new to the U.S.
“I find joy in helping the migrants,” Vargas said. His grandmother came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1980s, he explained, making his family’s life possible. “Migrants come seeking peace and better lives, just like my abuelita did,” he said. “This bill will make it harder for them, which is not very kind.”
“Do you want to be known as a hateful, unwelcoming state?” Vargas asked. “I know I don’t.”