State lawmakers grapple with illegal immigration

Banning taxpayer-funded day labor sites and stripping undocumented college students of their access to in-state tuition are among proposals in the Texas Legislature that seek to limit the effects of illegal immigration.

But even as they are filing, Republican lawmakers, who have a majority in the House and Senate, said they are mindful that attempting to supersede federal law could bring about lawsuits and alienate Hispanic voters—while having no real impact in the Lone Star State.

State's authority

So far, the bills that have been filed are largely limited to things the state can do, instead of bills that send strong anti-illegal immigration messages but cannot be enforced by the state, such as stripping birthright citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents, a bill that failed last session.

"It's a different conversation for Republicans to have, and it's a new conversation to have," said Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, who said he supports border security and wants to see Texas lead the charge on designing a national guest worker program.

A bill banning so-called sanctuary cities that was a priority for Republican leaders last session had not yet been filed as of the first week of session.

The bill would have stripped funding from cities that appear to flout immigration laws—such as forbidding local police from asking for proof of citizenship. But its author now says she has other priorities with regard to immigration.

"Border security and public security as a whole is my No. 1 priority," said Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Spring, adding that a ban on sanctuary cities is hard to enforce because those cities don't typically put such policies in writing. "The bottom line is, making sure that the safety and security of the people of Texas is well established must be our No. 1 priority. If we don't do that, well, there isn't much of a No. 2 priority."

Gonzales agreed, saying he would rather address issues such as gangs, drug cartels and human trafficking than bills that could make the population less educated and more dependent on the system.

Another bill that could be filed is a requirement that all businesses use the federally recognized E-Verify system to make sure their employees are in the nation legally. The bill was filed last session by Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, but died in committee.

Democrats' bills

On the Democrat side, a bill has been filed by a Dallas representative to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. The bill filing deadline is in March.

Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, said illegal immigration is a problem that should be addressed. But he said Texas should avoid creating laws so harsh that business is stymied or parents are afraid to send their children to school.

"However you feel about illegal immigration, there is no sensible benefit to having the children of illegal immigrants go uneducated while remaining in this country," he said. "No one wins from that outcome."

Democrats point to the presidential election, in which only 29 percent of Latinos voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, as proof that the GOP approach in the past has only served to alienate them from the Republican Party.