In Salado, the Tea Party Contemplates the Nation’s Future — and Rep. John Carter’s Not in It

Rep. John Carter at a town hall meeting in Salado.
Christopher Hooks
Rep. John Carter at a town hall meeting in Salado.

John Carter’s no squish. The portly 72-year old congressman cuts a figure straight out of Republican central casting. The first Republican elected in Williamson County since Reconstruction, Carter’s been slowly entrenching himself in the GOP establishment for three decades. Last year, the National Journal rated Carter the 11th most conservative member of the House.

But since Carter started indicating an openness to work on some kind of immigration legislation, he’s been getting pushback from his district. Pushback might be too gentle a term for what happened at a town hall meeting last night in Salado. Organized by the Central Texas & Williamson County tea parties, it was one of the congressman’s only publicized town halls of the August recess. Carter ate dinner with more than a hundred tea partiers, and sat with them to watch the quasi-documentary They Come to America II: The Cost of Amnesty.

But during the public town hall that followed, Carter faced a barrage of criticism for his willingness to consider immigration legislation.

In a microcosm of a political dynamic across the country, the conservative grassroots of his district don’t just oppose moving forward with immigration reform: They want the country to move fast in the opposite direction. The end of birthright citizenship. Mass deportations. More walls. Time and again, Carter told the room that he couldn’t get them what they wanted.

“This is a human issue, it involves human beings,” he said in his opening remarks. “It’s an economic issue, and it involves the economy of the United States. And it’s a legal issue.”

Carter presented the tenets of his own plan, which gives undocumented migrants a limited pathway to legalization in return for strengthened border security.

“You want a post hole dug? I can almost guarantee you won’t find anybody to do that job” who is legal, he said. Carter also emphasized that his plan would limit the pathways that legal migrants can use to bring family members to the U.S.

And that’s when things started to go off the rails. Audience members objected to the fact that Carter’s plan would continue to allow the parents of adult migrants here legally to obtain legal status themselves.

“The only reason we have mothers and fathers [in his plan] is because of Asians,” Carter said, to more shouts. “Asians have this mother and father thing.”

Carter deferred on birthright citizenship, saying that he only way to change the policy would be to amend the Constitution. That brought shouts from around the room — including, notably, Lynn Woolley, a local conservative radio host.

“That amendment was meant to prevent the Southern states from denying citizenship to former slaves,” Woolley shouted, to raucous applause. “That’s what it was! We need better judges. I’ve read what the framers wanted that amendment to be!”

Carter accused Woolley of demagoguing, and offered to debate Woolley on his radio show, but otherwise left the issue alone — which left Woolley miffed when he took to the airwaves today.

“Look, I like Congressman Carter a lot,” he said Wednesday morning. “I don’t like having a fallout with someone over one issue. But it’s an awfully big issue.”

The rest of the town hall question session found Carter on the defensive. A mustachioed rancher compared the U.S. to the Titanic, and said letting more people “who are feeding off our welfare system” gain legal status would sink the boat. A woman from Belton charged ICE with technological negligence.

“We can track a cow from birth to slaughter,” he said. “Why can’t we track someone who’s overstayed their visa?”

Another man seized on the consensus of the crowd: citizenship is the problem, not the solution.

“If you go down to the hospital here today and park in front, you’ll find numerous Mexican ladies about to go into labor,” he said. “They go to the hospital and wait until their water breaks, and then they’ll get $490 a month per child until that child is 18 years old. We’ve got to stop it.”

Carter repeated his assertion that the issue was Constitutional, but otherwise stayed silent.

The end of the question period found the event taking on an increasingly comic tone. One woman, who complained of the “fourteen illegals” in her sister’s apartment building, asked Carter: “How did Russia and China build their walls? Because they seem to have been pretty effective.” (See: Ida Siekmar and Genghis Khan, respectively.)

After the event, Carter quickly left the hall. The reaction from the audience was mixed.

David Schumacher, an impeccably dressed IBM veteran who helps lead the Williamson County Tea Party, wanted to be clear that he had no problems with a pathway to legalization in theory — but summed up the thoughts of many in the audience, who see the border as a profound and growing threat.

“A lot of these guys come over here and work for three or four years so they can send money back and build a house in Mexico. That’s fine,” he said, as the event’s primarily Hispanic kitchen workers filed out behind him. “But then there’s the cartels, Hezbollah and China. The Chinese do not like us much. We don’t know what these guys are doing over here.”

The small cadre of pro-reform activists who came to the town hall were largely undeterred by the tone of the meeting. Montserrat Garibay, a newly-minted American citizen and pre-K teacher in Austin, said she came to the meeting to voice concerns on behalf of her students, some of whom are American citizens with undocumented parents, and of her undocumented sister and father.

“I’m glad we came, even though mostly they weren’t allowing people of color to speak.” People at the meeting, she said, had been coming up to the activists, a mostly Latino bunch, and asking about their legal status.

“It’s heartbreaking—I mean, you heard the woman calling us cows,” she said. “But it’s important for us to be coming out and sharing our story, because if we don’t, they’ll tell our story for us.”

As the attendants filtered out, several people were discussing the prospect of a new congressman.

John Fulwiler said he had voted for Carter several times, but expressed his hope that his days in office were numbered.

“I voted for him, but honestly I hope he doesn’t run again,” he said. “I hope nobody runs again. We gotta start with a new batch of people.”

Christopher Hooks is a staff writer covering politics.

Published at 3:38 pm CST