Jerry Patterson on Border Rhetoric: It’s Going to Get Worse

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.
Patrick Michels
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson at the 2012 Texas GOP Convention in Fort Worth.

It was, despite the gravity of the topic, a pretty standard college panel discussion. On the third floor of UT-Austin’s Texas Union, more than a hundred people convened to consider the “roots” of the humanitarian crisis that’s seized the Texas-Mexico border this year. Grievous human suffering was explored through PowerPoint. In the corner, there was lemonade and cookies.

The speakers exchanged heartbreaking stories of abuse and loss. Ana Lorena Siria de Lara, the consul for El Salvador in Houston, spoke of the anguish of seeing a generation of her country’s youth in humiliating positions in detention facilities in Texas border towns. Seated next to her were representatives from human rights groups in South Texas, and UT faculty members. And on the far side, next to NPR journalist John Burnett, there was the surprising sight of Jerry Patterson, Texas land commissioner.

Patterson was pissed.

“We’ve reached a point in this discourse where it’s not so much what you say, as who is saying it,” Patterson tells the crowd. “If a Republican says it, a Democrat has to disagree. And if a Democrat says it, a Republican has to disagree. And we’re in really sorry shape. Politicians are not serving you well.”

Patterson, a libertarian-minded iconoclast and staunch gun-rights advocate, has, in recent years, become the Texas Republican Party’s only voice in statewide office advocating for a pragmatic position on immigration and border security. He helped get a call for a guest worker program in the 2012 Texas GOP platform. A year later, he ran for lt. governor, where his talk on immigration played a significant role in his last-place primary finish.

So in January, he’ll be leaving office, and there won’t be anyone left to pick up the slack—on this issue, at least. The new slate of GOP heavies are all hardliners. This panel doesn’t mean much in the big scheme of things, but Patterson’s willingness to spend time here at all is a testament to what the state GOP will be losing. It’s hard to imagine Sid Miller here in his place, listening patiently to a Spanish-to-English translation of a consular official’s description of the bathroom facilities at a McAllen detention facility.

At the UT panel, Patterson, given a brief period to speak, was clearly still mulling over the results of his primary battle. “This subject has reached the point where you can’t talk about it. You cannot honestly, objectively discuss. If you are a candidate, you’re relegated to saying things that fit on a bumper sticker,” he said. “That’s your policy. And if you venture outside of a few bumper sticker-like comments, such as ‘Build a Fence,’ ‘No Amnesty,’ ‘Secure Our Borders,’ you’re in deep trouble. That’s where we are politically.”

Over the course of his primary campaign, Patterson became obsessed with halting the rise of Dan Patrick, who elevated hard-line immigration pandering to the level of self-parody. Patrick’s fence-shaped “Secure Our Border” sign has adorned every border rally in the state for months—and littered the 2014 Republican state convention, where delegates undid the guest worker provision Patterson helped add two years before.

The political impasse we’ve reached on immigration, Patterson says, is occurring despite the fact that things have been just as bad—or worse—at many points in the past. “If you think we’re in the dark ages now, go back and look at history,” he said. “There is nothing new that’s going on today. It’s all been done before. And of course we could learn something from that if we choose to. But unfortunately we’re not able to do so.”

He told the crowd of the race-baiting of past governors, including the probably apocryphal quote sometimes attributed to Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson on the question of Spanish-language education: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” None of the recent National Guard deployments, he said, mattered in scale next to Woodrow Wilson’s deployment of the Army during the Mexican Revolution “to fight real border violence. This stuff that’s going on now is not even violence. Most of it is occurring—it shouldn’t occur anywhere, but unfortunately most of it is occurring in Mexico,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s history lesson may have seemed slightly out of step to some of his listeners. It’s not entirely clear what the story of General John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition has to say about the question of whether the current National Guard deployment will have a positive or negative influence in the Rio Grande Valley. In truth, he’s probably much closer to the rest of his party on border issues than he is to the people in this room. But he’s still the one who came.

“Frankly, the illegal immigration scheme we had was working fairly well when it was circular—when someone could come here to work for two and three months and then go home to their family. That worked pretty well,” Patterson said. “We’ve taken that and made what was a circular scheme a unidirectional system. If you can get here, you can’t go home.” Since workers can’t risk or afford multiple border crossings now, they have an incentive to bring their families here with them and try to stay permanently.

Patterson didn’t offer much hope for a political breakthrough. “I don’t know what we’re gonna do to fix it,” he said. “But I know that the course we’re on right now is not a very good one.”

Afterwards, I caught up with Patterson to ask him if he thought there would be voices in the state GOP who could advocate for some degree of border pragmatism after he leaves office. “I don’t think there are,” Patterson said. “There are people who want to, but they’re afraid.”

They may come around to it later when the political winds shift, he added. “Frequently, you can be on the right side of something, but be there at the wrong time. I think maybe I was a little too early.”

The awful state of the debate was frustrating to him, he said, because “if I was a dictator, I could, if not fix this, I could make it dramatically better in about three years.” There had to be a strong and accessible guest worker program, and the full weight of law enforcement had to go after coyotes and traffickers, not individual undocumented migrants. The conditions in Mexico and Central American countries had to be improved.

But he didn’t see much prospect for any of that, because of the “incomplete narrative” held to by so many—that is, those who talk about border security as being a wholly separate subject from immigration reform, like Patrick.

“You can say, ‘secure the border, build a fence, no amnesty.’ OK, fine. I’m not necessarily opposed to building a fence where it makes sense,” he said. “But that’s not enough. You know, politicians play to the lowest common denominator. Whatever it takes to get by. Whatever you can say to get you the votes. That’s the way it’s always been.”

If the GOP takes the U.S. Senate this year, as some think is likely, “we’ll no longer have an excuse that an immigration bill can’t be passed.” But Patterson doesn’t think we’ll see a breakthrough anytime soon. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better until it gets worse.” Then he set off down the Drag.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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