Texas immigration reform pragmatists advocate bilingual education

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Apr 2 18:28:42 UTC 2007

April 2, 2007 Editorial Observer

After an Anti-Immigrant Flare-Up, Texas Gets Back to Business


Everybody said that the nation's anti-immigrant fever was going to spread
to Texas this year.  State lawmakers entered the new legislative session
with dozens of bills whose anti-immigrant passions ranged from warm to
extra hot. They wanted to tax money transfers to Latin America and to sue
the federal government for money spent on border enforcement. One even
fired a broadside at the 14th Amendment, seeking to deny the benefits of
citizenship to Texas-born children of illegal immigrants. Their goal
seemed to be to make immigrants lives as miserable as possible, and to
howl at Washington for not fixing the mess. Meanwhile, an energetic cohort
of grass-roots advocates and legislators, Latino and otherwise, stood
ready to challenge the hard-liners at every step. A bonfire loomed.

But last week something strange and encouraging happened. The Legislature
took a big step back from the immigration fight, as an unusual alliance
rose up in support of humane, sensible reform. The powerful Republican
chairman of the State Affairs Committee, David Swinford, declared that
most of the immigration bills were constitutionally flawed, needlessly
divisive and a waste of time, so he was not going to let them come to the
floor. Some members were left spluttering Everything we do here is
divisive, said Representative Leo Berman, author of the birthright
citizenship challenge and other harsh bills. But that was all he could do.

Mr. Berman, an affable Republican from East Texas, says that Mexico is the
worlds most corrupt country and that its citizens are infecting us with
their law-breaking culture and with tuberculosis and leprosy. He has many
friends in the Capitol, which is nobodys idea of an immigrant-amnesty
zone. But the convictions gripping him have been eclipsed by something
deeper in the Texas soul.

That would be business.

Mr. Swinford said he had consulted the state attorney general and
concluded that most of the immigration bills would not survive court
scrutiny. Never mind that some sponsors were well aware of their bills
technical flaws and were itching to attract lawsuits anyway. Mr. Swinford
clearly had no appetite for crusading or grandstanding, and decisively put
a lid on things. Weve got business to do, he told me. We cant be fighting
and get our business done. He was talking about efficiency. But his words
could have been taken from the mouths of the powerful Texas Republicans
who have entered the debate squarely on the side of comprehensive reform
that blend of border toughness and pro-immigrant fairness that Republicans
elsewhere deride as amnesty.

The story dates to last year. It has to do, as Megan Headley wrote in The
Texas Observer, with pro-business Republicans realizing that
anti-immigrant fervor threatened to purge Texas of the workers that pluck
chickens, build houses, and make some people very rich. Their attention
was grabbed last April, when a Democratic representative, Rafael Anchia,
tacked a provocative amendment onto a bill raising business taxes to
finance property-tax relief. It would have forbidden employers to cut
their taxes by deducting wages of illegal workers. Mr. Anchia wanted to
send the message that any crackdown on illegal immigrants would be met,
blow for blow, with bills going after their employers. That got Mr. Anchia
a visit from Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business,
one of the states most powerful lobby groups. An alliance was born.

Mr. Hammond is now standing beside the likes of the American Civil
Liberties Union, the National Council of La Raza and the Equal Justice
Center as a member of Texas Residents United for a Stronger Texas, or
Trust. The group recently sent the Legislature and governor a 15-point
statement of principles on immigration reform. It urges economic
development in Texas and in Latin America. It argues for cultural
diversity, bilingual education and in-state tuition for illegal immigrant
children. And it denounces enforcement bills of the sort piled up by the
dozen in Austin. Mr. Swinford represents an agricultural district with a
lot to lose from attacks on immigrant labor. (Its home to a Swift meat
plant recently raided by federal agents.) But he insists he did not stifle
any bills at the behest of big business.

Maybe not, but he has certainly made it happy. The same week that Mr.
Swinford announced that the problematic bills in his committee would die
there, like the hoof-and-mouth cattle slaughtered in Hud, Mr. Hammond
stood with Mr. Anchia on the Capitol steps to unveil an ad campaign urging
Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to
citizenship. The ads were created by another new alliance, Texas Employers
for Immigration Reform, which includes the Texas Association of Business
and executives like Bo Pilgrim, the Pilgrims Pride chicken magnate. Its
Web site, www.txeir.org, makes some of the staunchest arguments for
comprehensive immigration reform youll ever hear from rich Republican
donors and power players. This Texas pragmatism has not taken hold
elsewhere. Not in Washington, where Republicans are laying out hard-core
positions against amnesty. Not in states like Georgia, Florida and South
Carolina, which are steaming ahead with harsh agendas.

But here, at least for now, powerful forces have come to understand
whether through warm feelings for workers or, more likely, cold
self-interest  that in attacking immigrants, Texas is attacking itself.



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