Immigration Is Hot-Ticket Item for Texas Legislature

Marcus Funk, Dallas Morning News, February 16, 2008

Rep. Jim Jackson of Dallas wants to declare English the official language of Texas and require all government employees–from high-ranking officers to park rangers–to prove citizenship or legal residency.

To Jackson, a Republican, it makes perfect sense: “If you’re going to have a law, then the first people that ought to obey the law is government.”

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So far, 35 bills aimed at illegal immigrants have been filed in the Legislature. Lawmakers say that for most, the future is uncertain at best. But because they are poised to stir passions, the bills serve as a distraction from traditional fiscal priorities–just as they did two years ago.

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Most opponents also point out that immigration is a federal issue, and most legislators say Congress should handle it–Texas has a budget to pass, jobs to create and public schools to monitor, all in less than five months.

Many of this year’s bills are unsuccessful repeats from the last session, when only three immigration bills–out of 72–ultimately passed. Supporters acknowledge that most were kept at arm’s length even by devout conservatives such as former House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who felt they belonged in Congress. And the measures face even longer odds under a moderate speaker and a House that is almost evenly divided now among Republicans and Democrats.

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But bipartisan proponents say they hope state action will spark greater federal efforts.

“We can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, it’s the federal government’s business,’ and hope that someday they will step up and help us out,” said Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell. “We have to do the best we can to try to get our border under control, or at least protect our citizens.”

But even the GOP is divided. While some Republicans embrace strong immigration enforcement, others worry about opposition from the pro-business groups that have traditionally been their backers. Others still are influenced by demographic shifts. Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Texas, and lawmakers such as Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, say many feel the rhetoric has become anti-Hispanic.

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Like-minded conservatives also dispute the allegations of racism. They argue that many Hispanics vote for Republicans promising fair wages and safe borders, and that national security is a universal concern. “I think if we handle it properly, I’m not sure we should have that much to argue over,” Jackson said. “I think most Hispanics want to follow the law, and I think we’re OK when we don’t make it about race and heritage. It shouldn’t be, on either side.”

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