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Controversial issues to come up in Texas special legislative session

Texas Gov. Greg Abbot has made "school choice" one of his top issues for the state. A special legislative session starting Monday will take up the issue of school vouchers for the second time this year, plus controversial border enforcement measures.
Sue Ogrocki
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AP
Texas Gov. Greg Abbot has made "school choice" one of his top issues for the state. A special legislative session starting Monday will take up the issue of school vouchers for the second time this year, plus controversial border enforcement measures.

Texas lawmakers will come back to Austin on Monday for what will be the third special legislative session this year.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the latest special session will focus on school vouchers and the creation of a state deportation force — two highly controversial issues that have failed in previous special and regular sessions.

"We will chart a brighter future for all Texas children by empowering parents to choose the best education option for their child," Abbott said in a news release.

"Texas will also pass laws to mirror the federal immigration laws President Joe Biden refuses to enforce that will reduce illegal immigration and enhance the safety of Texans."

Abbott's wish list of what he wants lawmakers to tackle next week also includes eliminating COVID-19 vaccine mandates, according to the official proclamation.

The Legislature's return to Austin comes three weeks after the Texas Senate acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton of impeachment charges, leading to a stark divide between the Texas House and the Texas Senate.

Both chambers will have to work together for any legislation to pass.

Second push for school vouchers

Abbott followed up on his campaign promise to push — once again — for the implementation of education savings accounts. These accounts would allow families to use taxpayer money to cover the cost of private schooling.

The proposal is likely to split the Republican majority in the Texas Legislature. During the regular session, House Republicans voted with Democrats to block the use of public funds for the implementation of a school voucher program. That prohibition was later dropped when the Legislature passed the state budget.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, who voted against school vouchers in the past, told The Texas Newsroom he remains steadfast in his opposition.

"They throw around the term school choice," Nichols said, referring to Republicans who support school vouchers. "Well, you've got a school choice already today. You have the right to take your child to public school, if you don't like that public school and you want to go to the adjacent public school, we already have provisions on the books so you can take your child to the adjacent public school."

But Nichols and his fellow Republicans who oppose school vouchers could face political consequences.

In a tele-townhall last month, Abbott said his team "will have everything teed up in a way where we will be giving voters in a primary a choice."

Democrats have also expressed their intent to push back against the proposal.

Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, said in a statement that school vouchers take taxpayer money out of public schools.

"I reject voucher gimmicks that would take any more money out of our neighborhood schools where the vast majority of Texas students are educated," Hinojosa said. "It's time for Governor Abbott to do his job and fully fund the public education of 5.4 million Texas school children."

State deportation force also on the agenda

Border policies also lead Gov. Abbott's latest special session call.

This time, the Republican wants state lawmakers to approve legislation creating a state deportation force.

Abbott's list said he wants "Legislation to do more to reduce illegal immigration by creating a criminal offense for illegal entry into this state from a foreign nation and authorizing all licensed peace officers to remove illegal immigrants from Texas."

Aron Thorn, senior attorney at Texas Civil Rights Project's Beyond Borders Program, pushed back on the idea.

"Federal law is very clear: States cannot engage in immigration enforcement," said Thorn in a statement Thursday.

"Nevertheless, in the last two years, Border Texans have watched Governor Abbott funnel billions of taxpayer dollars into his political pet project of a 'border crisis', which the State itself has been exacerbating to build a racist, xenophobic narrative that demonizes migrants and degrades the border communities that thousands of Texans call home."

More funding for the border

Abbott wants lawmakers to appropriate more funding for border barriers as well. That request comes after the Texas Legislature appropriated more than $5 billion for border security during the regular session that ended in May.

Although Abbott got the funding he wanted, other border bills didn't make it across the finish line by late May. They include an omnibus immigration bill that would have created a new law enforcement unit on the state's border with Mexico. As filed, members of the so-called Border Protection Unit, whose chief would be appointed by Abbott, would "arrest, apprehend or detain" people who illegally cross into the United States and "repel" people who attempt to enter the country.

During the first-called special session, an immigration bill that would have expanded penalties for human smugglers and operators of stash houses also failed after it became a casualty of the infighting between Republican members of the Texas House and Senate over property taxes (a property tax bill eventually passed later). Abbott once again added that item to the special session agenda his office announced Thursday.

"For the first time ever, Texas will subject people to arrest for illegal entry into our state from a foreign nation," Abbott said in a statement.

"All licensed law enforcement officers in Texas will be authorized to arrest or remove any person who illegally enters the State, with penalties up to 20 years in prison for refusing to comply with removal. To crack down on repeated attempts to enter Texas illegally, re-entry will be penalized with up to 20 years in prison."

Questions of legality and enforcement

It's unclear how state and local officers would accomplish that task as most immigration-enforcement matters, including the removal of non-citizens, falls under the purview of the federal government. If passed, the deportation legislation will likely wind up in court, a fight Abbott has welcomed on other issues, including the installation of floating barriers in the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas. A federal judge last month ordered the state to remove the barriers from the middle of the river — but that order was placed on hold pending an appeal. A panel of judges at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in that case Thursday.

Controversy over housing development ends up on Statehouse floor

A row of mobile home is shown in the Colony Ridge development in Texas. Unsubstantiated claims that the development is attracting undocumented immigrants and drug cartel members have made it all the way to the Statehouse, where governor has called a special session to increase border enforcement.
David J. Phillip / AP
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AP
A row of mobile home is shown in the Colony Ridge development in Texas. Unsubstantiated claims that the development is attracting undocumented immigrants and drug cartel members have made it all the way to the Statehouse, where governor has called a special session to increase border enforcement.

Additionally, Gov. Abbott instructed lawmakers to consider legislation to address "public safety" in communities far right conservatives and immigration hawks allege are marketed to attract undocumented immigrants.

A settlement called Colony Ridge, in Liberty County northeast of Houston, has become the latest immigration battlegroundafter right-wing media said the development is a magnet for crime and undocumented immigrants.

Abbott specifically wants lawmakers to debate "Legislation concerning public safety, security, environmental quality, and property ownership," he said in the statement.

Trey Harris, who owns the development with his family, called the allegations false and invited lawmakers to tour the area earlier this week, the Texas Tribune reported.

Texas Democrats were quick to rebuke Abbott after the governor issued the proclamation.

"Defunding public education and imprisoning vulnerable migrant families might be a top priority for Texas Republicans – but here in Texas, Democrats are the only legislators acting as the adults in the room," said Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party. "It's clear that the Republican Party of Texas is currently operating in a state of chaos – and the only uniting factor is their hatred for migrants and teachers."

Copyright 2023 The Texas Newsroom. To see more, visit .

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Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.
Julián Aguilar