Taking Aim at Immigration in Texas

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L.M. OTERO / AP

A protester faces an immigrants rights rally in front of the city hall in Farmers Branch, Texas, Aug. 26, 2006.

With the Democrats in charge in Washington, conservatives in Texas are wasting no time on a pity party. Republicans, after all, are still in the majority here, controlling every statewide office and the Legislature as well as the top courts. To press that advantage, conservatives plan to put their imprint next year on a variety of issues ranging from abortion to school vouchers. Their biggest push by far, however, will be passage of a host of bills dealing with illegal immigrants, including one that just might challenge the 14th Amendment, which defines citizenship and requires states to provide civil rights to anyone born on U.S. soil.

The opening salvo in the fight was made this week by Farmers Branch, a suburb of Dallas which is nearly 40% Hispanic. Despite protests in the streets and threats of lawsuits and boycotts, the city council voted to make English the official language and fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants. In Austin, meanwhile, Republicans began trooping into the state Capitol with stacks of bills aimed at cutting off benefits to illegal aliens, taxing their remittances south of the border, and requiring proof of citizenship at the voting booth. The harshest bill would deny welfare and other benefits even to the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens — rights supposedly given them under the 14th Amendment. Latino groups, who were only recently being wooed by Republican candidates, were left aghast at the onslaught, calling it "a hate campaign" against immigrants and "anti-human being" to boot.

John Colyandro, director of the Texas Conservative Coalition, told TIME that he expects "quite a bit of legislation" on illegal immigration to pop up in 2007 — and not just in Texas. "Because Congress did not pass a comprehensive reform bill on immigration, more and more states are going to step in like Arizona," he says. Arizona voters last month passed measures denying illegal immigrants access to state-subsidized benefits like child care as well as the right to bail and punitive damages in lawsuits. In the Texas Legislature, Colyandro expects a broad array of legislation targeting benefits to illegals, as well as voter verification of citizenship, employer sanctions for hiring illegal aliens, and additional funding for border security. He says the two extremes of the current immigration debate — deporting all illegals or granting amnesty to all — are "unworkable and frankly intolerable." He adds: "Somewhere between the two are workable solutions and that's where our focus will be in the Texas Legislature in January."

Just how far are conservatives willing to go? Far, according to a bill pre-filled this week by Republican state Rep. Leo Berman, who serves a onservative constituency in the east Texas town of Tyler, "the rose capital of the nation." Under Berman's bill, children born in Texas to illegal aliens would be denied state unemployment or public assistance benefits like food stamps as well as professional licenses. In Texas alone, he argues, there are an estimated two million illegal aliens whose U.S.-born children get these benefits, which go largely un-reimbursed by the federal government. "This is costing us a fortune," Berman argues. Although he had to back down on plans to deny education and health care (the feds require it), the central tenet of his bill remains: to challenge the automatic birthright of citizenship given to children of illegal aliens — all the way up to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

How could Texas deny benefits to U.S. citizens, even if they were born to illegals? Berman notes that the 14th Amendment was a late addition to the Constitution, written after the Civil War to assure citizenship for the children of slaves. The courts later extended the amendment to include the children of illegal immigrants. But times have changed, he says. "There are 20 million illegal aliens in the U.S. who have benefits that most U.S. citizens don't have," says Berman. "One of the most lucrative benefits is that pregnant illegal aliens can give birth in a U.S. hospital free of charge and be rewarded with citizenship while breaking the most basic of U.S. laws." To pay for all that free hospital care, he wants to tax all money transferred south of the border by individuals at 8% (citizens could apply for reimbursement). The fee could raise $240 million a year, he estimates.

The larger issue for both Berman and Colyandro is carrying on with the conservative agenda now that Washington is in Democratic hands. "The American people expressed extreme disappointment in the Republican Congress but they certainly did not make a turn to the left," argues Colyandro, pointing to conservative-oriented ballot issues on property rights, gay marriage and quota elimination that survived even as the South Dakota abortion ban went down in defeat. In Texas, three new abortion bills have already been filed, including one that would immediately invalidate state law permitting abortions if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. "The Republicans didn't fare badly in Texas so we have to preserve the Republican and conservative message," says Berman. "We'll be carrying the banner, probably for most of the U.S."

Hispanics in Texas plan to challenge the Farmers Branch ordinance in the courts and will battle bills like Berman's on every front. "This is a dark time for Latinos," says Rosa Rosales, a San Antonio resident and newly elected president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). "Can you imagine blaming children, trying to deny them medical care?" LULAC's former president, Hector Flores, who lives in the Dallas area, claims such conservative measures are "DOA on arrival" with the winds of change blowing through Washington. "These odious types of ordinances target Hispanics because of our growth. It is a hate campaign. That's not the American dream that we learned about in school," says Flores. What's needed instead, he says, is comprehensive immigration reform to regulate the flow of people, not just from Mexico but other countries. "Bottom line: this is up to federal government not the state legislature."