With politics in mind, Texas Republicans avoiding measures to crack down on illegal immigration
By KAREN BROOKS HARPER
13 January 2013 11:16 PM
AUSTIN — Faced with the prospect of a booming number of Hispanic voters, Republicans in the Legislature have stayed away from hot-button immigration proposals, such as banning “sanctuary cities.”
When lawmakers last met, they filed dozens of such measures well before the session started, setting the tone for an emotional and divisive immigration debate. Now, GOP lawmakers and party leaders say they want to show Hispanics that they understand their needs — and that they want their support at the polls.
“If somebody thinks you don’t like them because of their race or ethnic background, it doesn’t matter if they agree with you on 99 out of 100 issues. They’re not going to vote for you,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “We have adopted a change in tone, hopefully, and a re-examination of how we were messaging, and we did that way before the election.”
Last summer, Texas Republicans added support for a temporary guest-worker program to their party platform. The platform still calls for English-only policies and criminal punishment for entering the U.S. illegally. But the guest-worker proposal was a watershed moment for GOP-Latino relations and a nod to a changing reality in Texas politics, said GOP Rep. Larry Gonzales of Round Rock.
“It’s a little different tone this time,” said Gonzales, who has been pushing a message of inclusion to Republican groups in recent weeks and, he added, “being very well received. A lot of people woke up and realized that this population matters.”
Just 29 percent of Latinos voted for Republican Mitt Romney in November — a significant drop from more than 40 percent who supported Republican George W. Bush in 2004. So it’s wise to mend fences, said Sylvia Manzano, a Houston-based senior analyst with Latino Decisions, which tracks Hispanic influence in politics.
“You can’t attack and court at the same time,” Manzano said. “For every one vote you gain by being antagonistic, you lose five Latinos.”
That hasn’t been lost on the Texas GOP leadership, which has made no secret of the need to attract Latino voters.
No sanctuary ban
Perhaps the most telling sign of this new conciliatory tone is the absence of sanctuary city legislation from remarks this week by Gov. Rick Perry. Such a measure would prevent cities from barring police from asking those they stop about their immigration status. Two years ago, Perry declared it an emergency priority for legislators on the day the session began, though it never became law.
He now mentions the proposal only when asked.
“I still think it’s an issue we need to talk about as a state,” Perry said.
But he declined to say whether that legislation, which strips funding from cities that don’t actively enforce immigration laws, would re-emerge on his list of priorities.
“If there are issues that we think are important enough to rise to the level of an emergency from the standpoint of the state, you all will be some of the first to know,” he told reporters.
Democrats say that even if they don’t go to the lengths they did in 2011, Republicans still hurt Hispanic constituents with cuts to public education and social services.
“It’s still early, so I’m not holding my breath,” said San Antonio Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
Indeed, bills have been filed to repeal in-state tuition for illegal immigrant college students and clamp down on day labor sites. In addition, several House freshmen list the issue among their priorities for their first session.
But nobody has filed the Arizona-style bills that would empower local police to enforce immigration or require proof of citizenship for schoolchildren.
“I don’t think those are helpful in the conversation that we’re having with Hispanics,” said freshman Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, adding lawmakers will probably focus on education, jobs, and infrastructure issues. “We need to do a better job of focusing on opportunities for Hispanic families here in Texas rather than always focusing on those issues that are a little more divisive.”
Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, was once the face of Texas’ war on illegal immigration. This year, she’s focusing instead on border security and support for the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Riddle made national headlines before the 2011 session when she camped outside the House so she could be first in line to file her version of Arizona’s law. She warned against “terror babies” born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants, and said people had grown “sick and tired of political correctness.”
Asked last week whether she’d be filing the same immigration slate this year, Riddle said sanctuary cities legislation would be too difficult to enforce and steered the conversation toward securing the state’s border with Mexico.
“Border security, and security as a whole, is my No. 1 priority,” said Riddle, a member of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee last session. “I am looking at what we need to do as far as making sure that the DPS has the funds that they need in order to do what they need.”
Advocates for strengthening laws against illegal immigration say they don’t want to see a new political approach compromise efforts to battle problems that arise from the issue, such as illegal immigrants who cycle through the criminal justice system and commit more crimes when they’re released.
“I agree very much with those people that say the rhetoric has gone in a direction that hasn’t been welcoming, hasn’t been helpful,” said Ken Emanuelson, a Dallas lawyer and tea party activist. “But we can’t just close our eyes, stick our fingers in our ears, and say ‘La-la-la, I can’t hear you,’ because there are very real issues that arise from the lack of attention to these policies, and they’re not going to go away.”