Lege Targets the Undocumented

Bills would restrict access to work, education, etc.

Activists call for immigration reform at a rally last November.
Activists call for immigration reform at a rally last November. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Immigrant rights advocates are keeping a wary eye on the Legislature – where conservative lawmakers have filed a slew of bills designed to block protections for the undocumented population – while hoping the business community steps up to rein in heightened anti-immigration fervor.

Legislators have already filed more than a dozen immigration-related bills, most seeking to block the ease with which immigrants are able to go about the more mundane aspects of living – covering the gamut of everyday life, from holding down a job to going to school – that the rest of us take for granted.

There's HB 88, filed by Rep. James White, R-Tyler, and HB 183, by Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, which would require state contractors to use E-Verify, a federal electronic employment verification system, to weed out the undocumented from the workforce. HB 360, filed by Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, would disallow in-state tuition for undocumented Texas residents. HB 592, filed by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would require law enforcement agencies to take on the duty of determining the immigration status of anyone arrested, and placing immigration detainers on those who turn out to be undocumented. But one concurrent resolution – SCR 1, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-The Woodlands – goes for broke in claiming state sovereignty under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, "... serving notice to the federal government to halt and reverse certain mandates, and providing that certain federal legislation be prohibited or repealed" – a clear reference to President Obama's recent executive action on immigration, which would shield some 5 million immigrants from deportation.

"Every year, there seem to be some anti-immigration bills filed, but it seems now to be a priority," said Emily Timm of the Workers Defense Project. "We're definitely concerned."

Founded in 2002, the WDP has had its share of skirmishes on past immigration fights. But what's different this year – and what worries Timm the most – is the strident tone of the proposed anti-immigration bills. Obama's executive action seems to have strengthened the opposition's resolve. Prominent Republicans who ran their campaigns on anti-immigrant rhetoric not only seek to cash in political capital, but are also united by a common anti-Obama rallying cry. "It seems to be a priority to crack down on border security and place an emphasis on anti-immigration matters," Timm said. "It's sort of the backdrop of the issues they ran on, and they're not favorable to immigrants living and working in Texas."

Particularly worrisome for immigrant advocates is the Senate setting aside the two-thirds rule in favor of a three-fifths version in the passage of bills. For decades, the two-thirds rule has required a supermajority of the Senate – 21 of the 31 senators – to agree on a bill before bringing it to the floor, a provision designed to protect minority interests. Ending a 60-year tradition, the safeguard was banished this year in favor of the three-fifths version. "They've adopted a three-fifths rule more similar to the national Congress," Timm noted. "This may make bills more likely to pass."

Rafael Anchia
Rafael Anchia

Bill Beardall, executive director of the Equal Justice Center and a UT Law professor, said the majority of the bills filed are an effort to appease constituents. "Here's what happens: Most of those bills will not get serious consideration. Most of those bills are theatre for their constituent base that elected them on a platform of immigrant prejudice. Which are those that might get traction? It's hard to tell yet, but the ones likely to get more traction are the ones seeking to repeal in-state tuition and bar student aid to DREAMers," he said.

"Every session of the Legislature, for the past two decades at least, has started with a slew of anti-immigration measures – many of them harsh and strident," he went on. "Many of those efforts have been turned back, but mostly through the extraordinary efforts by a coalition of immigrant rights advocates working with allies in the faith community, business community, and the labor movement."

Given the current dynamics, HB 592 – which would in effect resurrect the Secure Communities initiative suspended as part of Obama's executive action – may make some headway. Beardall hopes to see a repeat from 2011 on that front, when then-Governor Rick Perry was unsuccessful in promoting a bill that would have prohibited cities from becoming sanctuaries for immigrants, and instead required local police officers to enforce immigration laws. "That effort might've reached its high-water mark in 2011," Beardall said. "But that zombie might come back from the grave."

Kayvon Sabourian, an attorney for EJC, is keeping an eye on legislative agendas as well. "This animus they have against our immigrants is to score political points," he said. "Clearly, the statements that some elected officials make on the campaign trail are meant more to get them into the paper [as] someone who's tough on immigration."

Ultimately, he and Timm both hope the specter of economic problems that some of the bills might cause would prompt even the most anti-immigrant lawmakers to reconsider. "We do have a shared prosperity," Sabourian said. "Our economy in the state is dependent on immigrants being assimilated into society. That's one of the reasons behind President Obama's executive action. Once the economic factors are considered, some of the more extreme bills will be adjusted."

Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, worries that much of the current legislation could undermine his championing of the Defer­red Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a temporary protection from deportation which also provides access to work permits. DACA is intended to help undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. "I have filed a House concurrent resolution to affirm the Texas DREAM Act," he said in a recent telephone interview.

But he, too, believes the business sector in Texas, which both depends on a robust immigrant workforce and donates generously to political campaigns, might urge lawmakers to reconsider. "We know we need a well-educated workforce in order to continue economic prosperity," Anchia said. "It stands to reason we'd continue to invest so we can have a highly educated human capital. This is the very reason Bill Ham­mond, [CEO] of the largest and most conservative business association [Texas Assoc­iation of Business], joined us at the press conference to affirm the DREAM Act."

"There's a real economic reason not to crack down on part of our workforce," Timm said. "When you have sectors in the Texas economy – construction, retail, hospitality – that rely heavily on an immigrant workforce, these bills are not good for business."

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immigration, 84th Legislature, Workers Defense Project, Equal Justice Center, Emily Timm, Kayvon Sabourian, Bill Beardall, Rafael Anchia, DACA, DREAM Act, Barack Obama

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