For Republicans, the Hazards of Red Meat

Demonstrators stand in front of the Texas Capitol on Feb. 22, 2011 to show their opposition to immigration legislation.
Demonstrators stand in front of the Texas Capitol on Feb. 22, 2011 to show their opposition to immigration legislation.

The growth of the state’s Hispanic population and the rise of immigration as a political issue put Texas Republicans in a tight spot — especially the ones with statewide aspirations.

It’s clear in the polls, on the political stump, on the news, at rallies and in the aisles of the Legislature that voters strongly support tougher enforcement of immigration laws and that conservative and Anglo voters strongly support more restrictions and fewer benefits for undocumented immigrants and their children.

It’s also clear that Hispanic voters — part of the fastest-growing group in the state’s population — don’t agree with their fellow Texans on many of those issues. Can Republicans keep their current voters happy without alienating the Hispanics they hope will support them in the future?

This isn’t altogether new. When George W. Bush was governor, he was very careful with immigration issues. He had watched California Republicans like Pete Wilson run some tough-nosed campaigns on immigration that resulted in a backlash that helped the Democrats take over their state government. Bush also wanted to bring Hispanics into the Republican Party, to win their votes and to unravel the historical ties between those voters and Texas Democrats.

Bill Hammond, a former Republican legislator who now heads the Texas Association of Business, thinks immigrant-bashing legislation could undermine the GOP, making Hispanics feel unwelcome and hurting businesses at the same time. “I think you suffer in the short term as well as the long term,” he said.

When Gov. Rick Perry talks about immigration, he doesn’t talk about immigration. He talks about border security and other law enforcement-related subjects like sanctuary cities. He’s not anti-immigration, just pro-law enforcement. Mexico’s drug gangs haven’t hurt the argument for border security, either: Perry’s ads on the subject in 2006 were so effective that he used them again in 2010.

Now the climate has changed, visible in the makeup of the Texas Legislature. Republicans have 101 seats in the 150-member House, and 19 in the 31-member Senate. The clarity of what Republican voters want is reflected in the bills filed by their elected officials. They’re talking about taking in-state college tuition away from the children of illegal immigrants who live in Texas. They’ve proposed Arizona-style legislation seeking to make local police the enforcers of federal laws. They’re calling on the federal government, meanwhile, to enforce those laws and to — this is Perry again — send more people to patrol the border in the interest of safety. They’ve renewed calls to crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

Perry added sanctuary cities to his list of “emergency” legislation that can be considered by the Legislature during what is normally a law-passing blackout for the first 60 days of the session. But he’s been careful with it, saying he doesn’t want to require local police to enforce federal immigration laws, as Arizona does. He wants to outlaw bans on that practice, and says simply that local police should be allowed to enforce those laws as they wish. No requirement, no ban, no bashing — just law enforcement.

His sanctuary-cities ban is a product of the governor’s race in November and illustrates how he’s walked the political line. In that contest, Perry accused his Democratic opponent, Bill White, of running a sanctuary city as mayor of Houston, preventing the police from enforcing immigration laws. And Perry closed his campaign with an ad featuring a Houston police officer whose husband, also an officer, was shot and killed by an illegal immigrant during an arrest.

With the Legislature in town, it’s harder to modulate the responses to public calls for tougher enforcement. If you’re a governor or a lawmaker who wants to be governor some day, all of that raises the political question above — is it possible to keep lawmakers from doing something that will sink the party in the future? And is it possible to escape this legislative session with a package of bills moderate enough to keep Hispanic voters in the fold without forfeiting the 2012 primary elections to current Republicans, including the noisy Tea Partiers, who want a stronger hand?

“I don’t think this is the kind of issue that defeats you in a Republican primary,” Hammond said. “You have to be atrocious to get defeated in a Republican primary. Taxes might fall into atrocious activity, but I don’t think this does.”

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