Texas bills would crack down on illegal immigration
Republican lawmakers in Texas, buoyed by their party's resounding victories on Election Day, are signaling just how far they're willing to go in cracking down on illegal immigration in the upcoming legislative session. A slew of bills filed Monday includes measures that would sanction businesses that hire undocumented workers, require state agencies to report on the costs of providing services to illegal immigrants and allow police to check an individual's immigration status on "reasonable suspicion."
For state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, the chance to file her anti-immigration legislation before anyone else was worth camping out at the Capitol for 36 hours straight. By Monday morning, when the House clerk's office opened its doors to allow the first prefiling of bills for the next session, Riddle's camper chair, sitting in the lobby of the House, was surrounded by bags of trash and half-consumed bottles of Coke.
"I would have waited a month if I had to do so," says Riddle, who reads the defeat of 22 Democrats last week as a mandate for the toughest possible crackdown on illegal immigration. "The overwhelming majority is saying that they want something done. They want their families to be safe."
The perennial proposal to require picture IDs at polling places was part of the nine-bill bundle filed by Riddle, which also included a measure that would stop state funding of any local governments that provide "sanctuary" to illegal immigrants. Immigration-related bills filed by other state lawmakers would prohibit any state agency from printing signs or documents in any language besides English (state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van), require proof of citizenship to get a driver's license (state Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton) and call for Texas employers to participate in the federal E-Verify system, which enables businesses to check a worker's immigration status before hiring (state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville).
Bills of this sort were filed in the 2007 and 2009 sessions, but Republican leaders — perhaps concluding that the immigration issue was too thorny politically — killed most of them before they could reach a final vote. While the courts continue to consider the constitutionality of Arizona-style measures allowing police to inquire about immigration status, next session is expected to be the best chance for a legislative remedy. With the GOP controlling all statewide offices, the top courts and nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Texas House and Senate, many of the tough measures that died in previous sessions are expected to have a much smoother route to passage.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, joined Riddle in filing the Texas version of the Arizona-style proposal, which not only allows officers to inquire as to the immigration status of anyone they have "reasonable suspicion" about and arrest offenders for trespassing if they are undocumented but also gives immunity to the arresting officer and the state from any lawsuits that result.
The bills filed on the first day go far, but lawmakers are likely to go further in the days and weeks ahead. State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, who has pushed some of the strongest anti-immigration proposals in previous sessions, is expected to file at least one bill challenging birthright citizenship. In 2007, Berman filed controversial legislation to deny benefits like state unemployment or food stamps to children born to illegal immigrants in the U.S., but this year, he says, he'll push to discontinue the 14th Amendment's guarantee of automatic citizenship for children born on U.S. soil. The measure would invite a lawsuit, but that's what he's hoping for. "That was the primary purpose of the bill, for someone to sue us in federal court, and let's resolve this issue once and for all," Berman told NPR in May.
In an illustration of the coming schism between pro-business Republicans and social conservatives in the party, the state's largest business lobby is opposing all statewide immigration proposals, saying that attempting to solve the problem of illegal immigration at the state level is ineffective. "The bottom line is, Congress needs to act and pass comprehensive immigration reform. We're sympathetic to the fact that Congress hasn't acted. We're frustrated, too," says Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. Hammond maintains the E-Verify computer system is too unreliable to put to use in Texas.
Civil rights groups argue that having police enforce immigration laws will only make victims of violence less likely to go to law enforcement. "The community will not communicate with you if they feel like they're going to get deported or somebody they know is going to get deported," says Jim Harrington, director of the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project. "It doubles the chances the further victimization of the victim. ... It's just stupid to me that we waste so much time on these things when we have a education crisis, a health crisis, a financial crisis."
If lawmakers do pass some of the strongest anti-immigration measures, they will wind up on the desk of Gov. Rick Perry, who must sign or veto the bills. Perry supports an end to any sanctuary city policies and criminal penalties for businesses that "knowingly hire" illegal immigrants but has said the Arizona immigration law is not right for Texas. "DPS and local law enforcement should not be responsible for the federal government's failure to secure our border," says Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.