Northward Ho!

How the Immigration Debate Left Texas

Last year it seemed undeniable that the 80th Texas Legislature was headed for an ugly, divisive, and possibly epic battle over illegal immigration. Washington lawmakers had deadlocked on comprehensive federal immigration reform. Gov. Rick Perry was dispatching Texas National Guard troops to the border, and the drumbeat for Texas to act on its own resounded throughout the November elections. State Republican legislators painted immigrants as parasites who weaken the state. Immigrant rights forces countered with promises to swamp the Capitol with busloads of constituents to protest anti-immigrant legislation.

In October 2006, a Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute task force that included several influential Republican state representatives released a report full of bold recommendations. It called for new laws denying birthright citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants, taxing the money many immigrants send back to their home countries, and penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers. “The recommendations provide a clear signal that illegal immigration will be high up on conservatives’ legislative agenda in the coming legislative session,” reported Quorum Report, an Austin-based political Web site, at the time.

But just as the stage was set, the curtain closed.

An unusual coalition of powerful Republican business interests—including the Texas Association of Business—realized that the anti-immigrant hysteria threatened to purge Texas of the workers that pluck chickens, build houses, and make some people very rich. The coalition threw in with Latino Democratic legislators, who were determined that immigration bills aimed at undocumented workers also crack down on employers.

Halfway through the legislative session, the debate has been thwarted, the anti-immigrant legislation dead on arrival. The story of how that happened speaks volumes about the economics of the state and the fissures running through today’s GOP.

The strategy seems to have had many authors. As early as the April 2006 special session, when lawmakers convened to lower school property taxes by raising tobacco and business taxes, state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas tried to “reframe the debate” on immigration. The reform bill placed a tax on businesses’ gross receipts, less the cost of payroll and goods. Anchia proposed an amendment that would prohibit businesses from deducting wages paid to undocumented immigrants. “Businesses couldn’t take tax credit for an undocumented worker,” he says. “The anti-immigration side loves to use words like ‘illegals’ and ‘aliens,’ so it’s only appropriate to talk about illegal businesses that violate federal law every day.”

The amendment passed the House with one dissenting vote. Anchia, a member of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, wanted to get businesses’ attention on the issue because “immigrants don’t have multimillion dollar lobbying budgets.” It worked. The next day, he received a call from Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. The peculiar, yet powerful, pair aligned—TAB and MALC, big business and immigrant rights supporters. The sides could agree on a principle—the need for comprehensive immigration reform, in Washington, that is. They also agreed that no good could come from a protracted immigration debate in the Texas Legislature. “Our position on immigration this session is that the [Texas] Legislature passes no laws,” Hammond says.

After all, employers need workers and don’t want to have to break the law to find them. “Our work force is slowly shrinking,” says Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president at International Bank of Commerce. “We hear from a lot of people in the communities that we serve that they’re having trouble finding workers.” Growers and landscape contractors are especially in need of workers, says Jim Reaves, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association.

Reaves and Aldrete speak of a dwindling and more highly educated American work force and an immigration system that doesn’t allow enough legal entry for foreign workers to fill the void: Cantaloupes rot in the fields. Contractors take 30 days too long to finish their jobs. Restaurant owners have enough business, but too few workers to expand.

It also didn’t hurt that two of the state’s biggest employers and campaign contributors depend on immigrant workers. Bob Perry and Bo Pilgrim gave almost $13 million to state candidates and political action committees in the last two election cycles, with Perry contributing the lion’s share. Most of that money went to Republicans. Pilgrim needs immigrants for his Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. chicken factories. Perry depends on immigrants to build houses for Perry Homes.

“[Perry] didn’t want this session to be just an immigrant bashing session,” says Houston Democratic Rep. Rick Noriega. The famously media-shy Perry called Noriega to express his concerns about the hardship that could be inflicted on his workers. “He has a perspective other than the economic,” Noriega says.

Hammond and Anchia continued their discussions at a June conference in Dallas of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Two Democratic state representatives, Veronica Gonzales of McAllen and Pete Gallego of Alpine, joined Aldrete and other MALC members and worked with TAB over the summer to produce a list of shared principles. The result was a call for comprehensive immigration reform that permits enough legal immigration to meet labor demands, provides some sort of path to legalization for those already here, and creates a workable system of verification for employers.

The toughest part of the deal was letting those here become citizens, Hammond says. “We had an exhaustive meeting with our board members.” They were persuaded that “it’s better to allow people to come from the shadows,” he says.

Meanwhile, Texas-based businesses were forming another group to promote immigration reform at the national level—Texas Employers for Immigration Reform, which counts Perry Homes and Pilgrim’s Pride, as well as TAB, among its 60-plus members. Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, came to Texas last summer to help organize employers around immigration reform. She worked closely with the new employers coalition, focusing on getting a bill passed in Washington. “We need the voice of employers in the debate,” Jacoby says. “Democrats can’t pass a bill without Republican support, and who’s going to convince Republicans if not business people in Texas?” Jacoby says groups like TEIR are forming in Arizona, Florida, and Colorado as well.

TAB and MALC held a joint press conference in August, and TEIR “fed off the momentum” the next day with its first meeting, Reaves says. At first, businesses were hesitant to sign on for fear of being accused of hiring undocumented workers, he says. Aldrete agrees: “The only people that were speaking out were the associations. Many of the individual businesses did not want to stick their head up for fear that they would be scrutinized or criticized or paid a visit by immigration authorities.”

After the November elections, the immigration jockeying commenced in the Lege. Texas Conservative Coalition members filed their bills. Anchia made sure to file legislation involving employer sanctions. His House Bill 351 would exclude companies who hire undocumented workers from the Texas Enterprise Fund. The fund is part of Gov. Rick Perry’s program to attract business with incentives and grants. Anchia says he didn’t expect the bill to pass and saw it as a way to further engage business interests on immigration. With the TAB-MALC coalition solid, Anchia decided to withdraw the bill as a sign of good will but warns that employer-sanction amendments are ready if there is a fight over immigration bills in the House chamber.

Two important public steps took place before the session began in January, Anchia says. The governor said he didn’t want immigration debate to happen on the state level, and a state comptroller report released in December showed that illegal immigrants contributed $17.7 billion to the Texas economy in 2005. By this time, Speaker Tom Craddick had also put out the word privately that he had no appetite for an immigration debate in the House.

Craddick’s fellow Republicans knew that the activist base of their own party would not be pleased. Perhaps the most inspired effort to cover their tracks came from Rep. David Swinford of Dumas. He chairs the House Committee on State Affairs, the destination of most anti-immigrant legislation. Swinford promised to refer many of the immigration bills to the attorney general to see if the state Legislature had legal authority. “I just figured there wasn’t much sense in wasting time and effort on things that weren’t constitutional,” Swinford says. “The attorney general has to defend what we pass. There’s no sense in tying him up in court for the rest of his life.” Swinford agrees that immigration is a federal issue.

Predictably, some GOP legislative hard-liners were unhappy. Tyler Republican Rep. Leo Berman filed some of the most constitutionally dubious anti-immigration bills and criticized TAB. As quoted in an Austin American-Statesman editorial, Berman said, “I’m a life member of the TAB and I am absolutely disappointed, and will probably drop my membership since they got involved in an issue of illegal aliens, which has nothing to do with business.” Hammond says Berman hasn’t sent a letter or resigned.

“TAB has a lot of influence on members that we might not normally be able to reach,” Rep. Gonzales says.

It’s the kind of alliance that is only strange because of legislative polarization in recent years, says Noriega. Hammond agrees. “Coalitions are the way you get things done,” Hammond says. “There’s greater strength when two groups that are not natural allies get together on an issue … It’s a man-bites-dog story.”

Those who fear immigration will still have an opportunity to say so. Swinford’s State Affairs panel will hold a public hearing in late March on many of the immigration bills. “There will be a ‘day without a Mexican’ hearing date on those bills so they can load up and get it off their chests,” says Noriega. “But I think it will have a lot of difficulty getting on the floor.”

Megan Headley is a Texas Observer legislative intern.

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Published at 12:00 am CST