The Texas Miracle would have been impossible without cheap undocumented labor. But now the Legislature is ready to kick immigrants out.
The opening prayer for the Texas House on Wednesday was offered by Reverend Monsignor Xavier Pappu, of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Longview. “I was hungry, you gave me food. I was thirsty, you gave me drink. I was a stranger, you welcomed me. I was naked, you clothed me. Ill, and you cared for me.” Matthew 25 is one of the most best-known passages in the New Testament — the source, a few lines later, of Christ’s proclamation that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
When Pappu was done, lawmakers of both parties politely applauded, and then launched into a brutal, 16-hour debate about whether undocumented Texans count — whether they should receive the most basic protection afforded by a society, the protection of the law. The answer rendered by the Texas House, after many years of relative tolerance of the undocumented, is no.
Around 3 a.m. Thursday morning, the House voted 93-54, along party lines, to tentatively approve Senate Bill 4. The significance of the House GOP’s decision to turn Texas cops into partners in the federal immigration dragnet cannot be overstated. It’s both the predictable culmination of the state’s lurch to the populist right, and, potentially, the death knell of a years-long truce on immigration that served as the cornerstone of the Texas miracle.
At the turn of the millennium, the prevailing attitude among Texas politicians toward undocumented immigrants was one of practicality. There was a keen awareness that the Texas economy was premised on the availability of cheap labor. The dominant political force in the Republican Party was the business lobby.
In 2001, with the Texas Dream Act, the state became the first to offer in-state college tuition to undocumented Texans. The law was sold as an investment in the state’s future, and it won Republican support. Then-Governor Rick Perry signed it into law during his first session. He did veto a bill to give undocumented Texans access to driver’s licenses, but in retrospect it’s remarkable the bill garnered a significant amount of Republican support in the Legislature.
That’s all gone now. It is unthinkable that either bill would attract any meaningful Republican support in the Legislature were they to be proposed today. At the same time, Texas has been slow to take big steps backward. Even as anti-immigrant sentiment grew and grew, it frequently failed to result in new laws. In 2011, lawmakers considered a “sanctuary cities” bill, but it stalled out. A similar bill died in 2015. The Dream Act is perennially on the chopping block, but it hasn’t yet been seriously threatened.
The 2014 elections changed things. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick ran, more than anything else, on “securing the border.” He bludgeoned his Republican primary opponents with votes they had taken that looked sort-of kind-of sympathetic to immigrants. When he was accused of simply having been nice to a former employee who didn’t have legal status, by the employee himself, he issued a strongly worded denial. It was not something Texas had seen before, but Patrick had read the political tea leaves correctly. At the state Republican convention that year, conservative activists stripped language calling for a guest worker program from the platform.
Still, nothing much happened in the subsequent legislative session in 2015. The consensus among the business lobby, moderate Republicans and Democrats held. Then Trump showed up. Patrick, after a brief flirtation with Cruz, attached himself to Trump, and the two campaigned together all over Texas. The national conversation over immigration bled into Texas more and more.
This session, the governor made “sanctuary cities” legislation a legislative emergency, and Patrick provided a vehicle for it in Senate Bill 4. The House is the place where conservatives have the least influence and the business lobby is strongest. So the bill’s house sponsor, Charlie Geren, walked a bill out of committee that, while by no means good, lacked some of the teeth of its Senate version, namely the “show your papers” component. Then, after hours of agonizing and biting debate, the House put the teeth back in via tea party legislator Matt Schaefer’s amendment, which passed 81 to 64.
The consideration of Schaefer’s amendment, the most important part of an endurance-testing debate that lasted more than 16 hours, produced some nasty moments. Poncho Nevárez and Harold Dutton beat up on Matt Rinaldi, and Rafael Anchia challenged Schaefer and Jason Villalba in unusually confrontational terms. In the end, only nine Republicans voted against the amendment, including Geren and Byron Cook. They are old-school business Republicans who have been longtime allies of House Speaker Joe Straus. They’ve surviving members of the class of lawmakers most responsible for upholding the “truce” in the past.
Geren issued a mild protest against Schaefer’s amendment, but seemed resigned to its passage. And Cook, the only Republican to speak against the amendment, tried to make the case that Republicans could consider themselves tough on immigration without turning every police officer in the state into an ICE deputy. The argument proved unpersuasive.
It is not, in itself, surprising that the Texas Legislature has become more willing to play immigration cop, if only because of the national climate. But there is a fair bit of hypocrisy in this shift. The state’s great economic booms of the ’90s and ’00s would have been inconceivable without the influx of undocumented workers they attracted. It’s only now that migration from Mexico has essentially halted, and the state’s economy has slowed, that the Lege is taking action. Now that Texas has wrung as much benefit as it can from its undocumented workforce, it would rather be done with them.
The Legislature has decided that the state no longer needs the people who built the suburbs in North Dallas, Houston’s glittering office parks, and the pop-up infrastructure in the oil patch; who cleaned homes and raised children and mowed lawns for the owners of the mansions in Highland Park and West University Place; who tended to the crops in Uvalde and ranches in the Panhandle; who washed dishes and bussed tables in Austin’s bars and San Antonio’s kitchens. Those people knew they came here without legal protection, and were subject to the whims of American politicians, but for the last few decades there was a sort of consensus belief in the state that they were owed something by us. The Texas House has made clear that that is no longer the case.