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House Loads up Homeland Security Bill with Controversy

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This session’s sweeping homeland security bill, SB 9, still doesn’t have a House sponsor but that didn’t prevent a new slate of controversial programs from being added to the bill Tuesday. E-verify, southbound checkpoints and asset forfeiture legislation were just a few of the things tacked on to SB 9 this morning in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee.

Civil rights groups from the ACLU to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund didn’t like the Senate version. They liked this morning’s version even less. Luis Figueroa, an attorney with MALDEF, questioned the section allowing DPS clerks to act as immigration agents. The bill requires applicants who are not U.S. citizens to provide immigration documentation before being granted a drivers license.

Figueroa pointed out that there are 22 immigrant visas and that DPS clerks would need substantial training to determine the different types of visas. “Immigration laws are complicated and DPS has been trying to implement these rules for the last three years and they’ve not been implemented correctly,” he said. MALDEF is already defending several legal immigrants and U.S. citizens in court who were denied drivers licenses by DPS.

Another big concern is how DPS will pay for the training of these new immigration clerks. When the bill passed out of the Senate it added a fee to drivers licenses to pay for the training. But that was taken out and replaced with committee Vice Chair Allen Fletcher’s asset forfeiture bill, HB 2887, which died in Calendars Committee last week. Asset forfeiture has been a controversial issue because it provides a perverse incentive to law enforcement to go after asset seizures to make up for budget shortfalls. “There’s been a real problem with asset forfeiture because police have shaken down drivers for no reason,” said Rebecca Bernhardt, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition at the hearing.

Southbound checkpoint legislation was also added to the bill that would create checkpoints near international points of entry. In an previous post I pointed out that DPS already has the authority to do statewide checkpoints. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in January that it was okay to have checkpoints if the “primary purpose was for license and insurance verification.”  Bernhardt suggested that legislators pass an amendment on the bill that requires DPS to report on the number of stops, arrests, seizures and other actions at checkpoints. “Checkpoints are often places where civil liberties are violated,” she told the committee, which seemed uninterested in adopting such an amendment.

Texas need not look far to see what kind of legal headache E-Verify can amount to. Both Arizona and Oklahoma have been embroiled in lawsuits concerning their E-Verify laws. In 2008, an Oklahoma district court issued an injunction prohibiting the enforcement of Oklahoma’s E-Verify laws. That ruling was later overturned by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, but a coalition of businesses will likely appeal the ruling. Similarly, a federal lawsuit challenging Arizona’s E-Verify law–which is almost identical to the one proposed in SB 9– remains pending in the supreme court.

There’s also a REAL ID provision that allows DPS to use an “image verification system,” which sounds like DPS will be using photographs of people applying for licenses to check against databases looking for criminals.

Matt Simpson, with the ACLU, said the bill in its newest incarnation had several problems from “really high mandatory minimum sentences” for gang members to the “elimination of any reliable funding source” for the numerous programs. “I’m frankly surprised that Texas would try and pass a bill that incorporates three massive federal programs: Secure Communities, E-Verify and the Real ID act,” Simpson said. “All of these issue are controversial in their own right.”

But don’t imagine that this is the last draft of SB 9. The committee has said they’ll have another substitute possibly as soon as tomorrow. And if the bill ever does make it to the House chamber it’s going to rival any Capitol Christmas tree with all of the various bills that will be amended on to it.

–Texas Observer intern Daniel Setiawan contributed to this report.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.