Illegal immigration is emerging as a growing issue in the 2006 state elections with several polls indicating rising public concern.
With an estimated 9.7 million immigrants living in the country illegally, 1.3 million in Texas, constituents worry about competition for jobs and the impact on social services and schools, according to lawmakers and political analysts. And some candidates, most of them Republicans, are taking advantage of voter discontent.
State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, said a recent poll she conducted found that immigration was the No. 1 concern of residents of her district, which includes most of Northeast Tarrant County.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said immigration is also a top issue at town hall meetings she holds in her district, which includes parts of Denton and Tarrant counties.
Across the region, far from Texas’ 1,200-mile border with Mexico, other candidates for the March 7 primary say they see the same concern.
A recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 79 percent of Texans believe the government is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration. Eighty-six percent also believe that U.S. businesses increase the problem by hiring illegal immigrants, the poll found.
That’s consistent with a national Rasmussen poll in November which found that 75 percent of Americans believe immigration will be somewhat or very important in terms of how they vote on Election Day.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, who supported the immigration-enforcement bill, described the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States as an “invasion” that is burdening social service programs, including local hospitals.
Babies born to mothers living in the country illegally comprised nearly three-fourths of the births at Fort Worth’s public John Peter Smith Hospital this year, the Star-Telegram reported Dec. 14. Of the 5,775 deliveries during fiscal year 2005, which ended in September, 4,207 were the children of mothers without immigration documents.
“The crisis is so severe that it’s imperative that we simply secure the border,” Burgess said.
Amber Moon, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, accused Republicans of exploiting immigration for political gain.
“Instead of proposing real solutions, it’s a race to the right, as they compete to see who can come up with the most inflammatory language,” Moon said in a written statement.
Truitt rejected that argument. She is being challenged for the Republican nomination by Bill Skinner of Grapevine.
“My constituents are bringing it to my attention saying it is a primary concern of theirs, and I’m just responding to what my constituents are saying to me,” she said.
The political risk among Hispanic-Americans may be minimal. They rank education, healthcare, the economy and jobs as higher issues than immigration, according to a survey released in August 2005 by the Pew Hispanic Center. While a majority of Hispanics nationally express positive attitudes toward immigrants, relatively few favor increasing the flow of legal immigration from Latin America, according to the survey.
“These findings clearly indicate that in a policy debate Latinos will not automatically or unanimously adopt what might be commonly perceived as the pro-immigrant position,” the survey report states.
Locally, state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, whose district is more than 60 percent Hispanic, said his constituents rarely ask him about immigration issues. He said the United States could stem the flow of illegal immigrants by building up the economies of Mexico and Latin America so people would not come to the United States in search of jobs.
“There will be a race among Republicans to be the most restrictive on immigration,” Kronberg said.