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Houston Chronicle OpEd
May 7, 2023
As Texas religious religious leaders, it is deeply concerning to us that Speaker of the House Dade Phelan has prioritized House Bill 20, which is up for a first crucial floor vote this week.
People of faith have long advocated for compassion toward immigrants. From individual acts of charity to global humanitarian ministries, believers of all faiths affirm the call to welcome the sojourner.
Chronicles 16:19-22 reminds us, “When they were few in number, of little account, and strangers in the land, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, ‘Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.’”
Yet today in Texas, legislators—many of them ardent believers—have forgotten the call of Scripture to welcome strangers, not repel and resist them. They have bought into a narrative driven by fear and hatred of the unknown, which subjects immigrants, asylum seekers, and US citizens alike to harassment and scapegoating for problems they did not cause.
House Bill 20 by Rep. Matt Schafer of Tyler would create a new “border protection unit,” staffed by an unregulated militia of “noncommissioned” volunteers subject only to the authority of the Governor and his appointees. An untrained and marginally managed militia force endangers lives.
The members of this militia would target and expel immigrants. The bill would give them a wide range of authorities, including the authority to “deter persons attempting to cross the border unlawfully, including with the use of non-deadly crowd control measures.”
Translated, this means Texas volunteers will be deployed to prevent asylum-seekers from setting foot on US soil, where according to international law they have the right to claim refuge from threats to their lives in their home countries.
Backers argue House Bill 20 would protect Texans from legitimate threats. The bill makes extensive reference to fentanyl, human trafficking, and transnational cartels. The bill’s “finding of facts” states “This state is "in such imminent [d]anger as will not admit of delay" and declares authority under Section 10, Article 1, United States Constitution.”
But the conservative Cato Institute urges lawmakers to consider the facts: fentanyl is smuggled for U.S. citizens by U.S. citizens, not asylum seekers. Over 90 percent of fentanyl seizures occur at legal crossing points or interior vehicle checkpoints; and just 0.02 percent of the people arrested by Border Patrol for crossing illegally possessed any fentanyl whatsoever.
The Cato Institute argues that reducing deaths requires figuring out the cause, not jumping to blame a group that is not responsible. https://www.cato.org/blog/fentanyl-smuggled-us-citizens-us-citizens-not-asylum-seekers HB 20 also is unlikely to help with human trafficking. According to the US Department of Justice, of the 1,169 defendants charged in U.S. district court with human trafficking offenses in fiscal year 2020, 63% were white and 95% were U.S. citizens.
Instead of solving actual problems confronting Texas families and communities, HB 20 would harm our already-suffering siblings, including children crossing the border alone. By establishing unregulated militias with police powers, and selectively designating migrants as trespassers and terrorists, HB 20 would destroy trust in our communities, and threaten our congregations and ministries that aid those in need. By leaving border enforcement in the hands of unregulated militias, lawmakers would make faith communities vulnerable to intimidation and coercion, violating the constitutionally promised religious protections that allow us to practice our faiths.
We urge our representatives and senators to lead and legislate with love for all whose feet find US soil. We urge them to protect and serve the people of our state without causing harm to others. We urge them to show compassion towards those who must leave the land of their birth out of desperation for their survival.
Bishop Michael Rinehart, Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Bishop C. Andrew Doyle, The Episcopal Diocese of Texas, The Episcopal Church.