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Controversial? Just Wait

The voter ID legislation passed by the Texas Senate on Wednesday night may be controversial, but it’s a familiar debate, as is the issue of “sanctuary cities.” Less well known but no less controversial are many of the provisions found in more than three dozen immigration-related bills filed so far. Some Hispanic Republicans in the Texas House say they are not going to support bills they believe are too extreme.

Protesters hold signs reading "No Arizona Hate in Texas" — a reference to a recently passed law in that state — during a 2011 demonstration against "sanctuary city" legislation in Austin.

The voter ID legislation passed by the Texas Senate on Wednesday night may be controversial, but it’s a familiar debate, as is the issue of “sanctuary cities.” Gov. Rick Perry has declared both to be “emergency items” that demand immediate attention by the Legislature.

Less well known but no less controversial are many of the provisions found in more than three dozen immigration-related bills filed so far in the early days of the 82nd legislative session.

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, has made national headlines for his “birther” bill that would require a candidate for president or vice president of the U.S. to show proof of natural-born citizenship to be placed on the ballot in Texas. He has also filed proposed legislation designed to provoke a legal challenge to the 14th Amendment, which bestows citizenship on anyone born in the U.S., regardless of the status of the child’s parents. House Bill 292, if passed, would prevent a county's local registrar from issuing a birth certificate to a child born to undocumented immigrants in Texas.

“Instead, they will be given a notice of birth, with instructions to take it to their own consulate or embassy to get citizenship papers or a birth certificate from the country of their parents,” Berman said, explaining his bill. “If it passes, we expect to be sued immediately, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for — we want to be sued in federal court so that federal judges will finally read the 14th Amendment.” After that, he said, it’ll only be a matter of time before the federal government realizes the amendment was ratified in 1868 only for those children born in the U.S. to black slaves.

Berman has also authored a bill — HB 294 — that would ban undocumented immigrants from suing legal Texans. They could not seek “equitable relief as a counter claimant or a cross claimant,” according to the legislation.

“If you have an accident with a car driven by an illegal alien, you are going to pay for your own car. But if you hit them, they are going to get an attorney, an abogado, and they are going to try and sue you for everything you’re worth,” he said. “I have asked several lawyers, and they said it is constitutional.”

State Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, an attorney, said lawmakers are entitled to file any bill they wanted, but he said the bill would likely be deemed unconstitutional by the courts.

“The Texas Constitution has an open-courts provision which has always been interpreted to be even stronger than the Bill of Rights,” he said.

State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, has drawn the ire of Hispanic Democrats, educators and others for her proposed legislation — HB 22 — that would mandate that public schools keep track of the immigration status of students by requiring that they submit a copy of their birth certificates or other documents indicating their residency status “for inspection” by school officials at the time of enrollment. The bill also requires school districts and open-enrollment charter schools to submit information on the number of students enrolled in bilingual education or special language programs, and to “identify and analyze any impact on the standard or quality of education provided to students who are citizens that may occur as a result.”

Critics have argued the requirement would be an unfunded mandate — the bête noire of conservative lawmakers opposed to many federal mandates — and that preventing the education of any child in Texas is inherently unconstitutional.

Riddle’s chief of staff, Jon English, said she may have to “pull back” if the costs incurred by the Texas Education Agency are too high.

“We’ve been talking to some of the folks and TEA about what it is going to cost, and that’s something that we want to be cautious about,” he said. But he dismissed any notion that school principals would somehow become immigration agents or law enforcement.

“It’s just nose-counting. [Denying education] is not the intent That’s not what we hope happens either," he said. "We just need to know how many illegal students we are serving."

HB 21, also filed by Riddle, would require that state agencies report the costs of providing benefits to undocumented immigrants. Local governmental entities that receive state grants would also be required to submit that information to the grant provider.

State Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, has filed legislation that targets legal aliens who are requesting indigent care. HB 655, if passed, would offer counties the option of adopting a policy that would consider the income of a legal alien’s sponsor if that alien applied for indigent care. A sponsored alien is one who is admitted into the country legally after an affidavit of support. The sponsor’s spouse’s income could also be included in the determination of an alien’s eligibility for indigent care.

Taylor said Collin County officials approached him about filing the legislation, and that the bill has garnered support from his Republican colleagues in the Texas House and Senate.

“People that have the wherewithal to afford health care are taking advantage of our indigent health care system, which is designed for the indigent,” he said. Last year the county spent more than $3 million on indigent care, though how much was on legal aliens is not known, according to his chief of staff.

Randall Ellis, the senior director of government relations for Legacy Community Health Services in Houston, said the bill is a transparent attempt to discourage the sponsorship of aliens petitioning to enter the U.S. legally.

“It instills fear in people if you are going to be called before the government," he said. "Of course, when you sign on as a sponsor you accept that, but the more loops and the more fear you put in people, the more you drive people away."

Taylor said he is just providing the state with a way to comply with federal law, which already states that a sponsor’s information is subject to review. He pointed to language on a federal I-134 form, which requires that a sponsor agree to language that the alien “will not become a public charge in the United States.” The form also includes language specifically stating that the sponsor’s own income “and assets may be considered in deciding the person’s application.”

Some Hispanic Republicans in the Texas House, who helped the party attain a supermajority in the chamber after the November election, said they are not necessarily going to support bills if they believe they are too extreme. State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, switched parties last month, causing a stir among his former Democratic colleagues and in his heavily Democratic South Texas district. But, he said, his new allegiance won’t mean he unquestioningly supports what some of his new colleagues would like to become law.

Peña and his colleagues plan to announce the formation of the Hispanic Republican Conference, which will include the six Republican House members. Members in districts that were at least 40 percent Hispanic as of the 2000 census will also be invited and have voting powers.

“I will just say that we are going to, as a group, go through all of the bills with regard to voter fraud, with regards to immigration and other issues that impact Hispanic communities and either take a position [as a group] or take individual positions,” he said. “And we will be looking for things that don’t fit the reality of our experience. If something is too draconian or is bad for business or does more harm then good, we will take a position against it.”

Freshman member Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, said it was his duty as a policy-maker to make sure proposed legislation doesn’t promote racial profiling.

“I don’t think there is any reason that my 84-year-old grandmother, if for no other reason but for her physical appearance, gets stopped and asked for her immigration status. I am not supportive of that,” he said. “And there are some things that look familiar to me on that issue so those are the things are I am willing to engage in. Is it a very difficult conversation? Yes. I’m willing to do it.”

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Demographics Immigration State government 82nd Legislative Session Larry Gonzales Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate Van Taylor