Sitting in his Texas Capitol office, surrounded by pictures of his storied 22-year military career, the seven-term, 75-year old state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, said in his distinctive New York accent, “I’m very unusual for a legislator.”
His reasoning? “Because I personally answer every e-mail I get,” he said.
Berman does not shy from questions about his archconservative legislative agenda, which manages to stand out even in the redder-than-average Texas Legislature.
Last session, his bills — like the one restricting illegal immigrants to certain geographical regions or another denying them access to higher education — failed to gain traction in the roughly evenly divided House. But with this session’s Republican supermajority, it could very well be the session of Leo.
“I feel a lot better than I have in the past,” Berman said about his bills’ chances. “Although if we had a different speaker, I’d be excited.” Berman was among 15 representatives who voted against re-electing Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, on the grounds that he is not conservative enough.
It is early yet, Berman said, but so far he has not experienced any retribution for his opposition to the House leadership, though he’s made it known that he won’t take it lightly if he does. If he suspects any of his bills are being intentionally held up, he said, “I’ll have a press conference that same day, and I’ll have a press conference every day if I have to.”
While he hopes the Legislature balances the state’s cash-strapped budget without tax increases and gets through the redistricting process without a challenge, his personal legislative priority is curbing illegal immigration.
He has filed his own version of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, as well as bills mandating that employers verify employees’ legal status electronically, making English the state’s official language and eliminating birthright citizenship — an issue he hopes provokes a lawsuit he can take all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Another bill would add an 8 percent surcharge on money wired back to Latin America, which he would earmark for hospitals providing free health care to illegal immigrants — who Berman says are bringing in drug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria, polio, plague and leprosy.
(According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the only incident of plague in Texas in the last decade was in 2006, and it was contracted during a hunting trip in New Mexico. The most recent case of polio in Texas, contracted during an individual’s travels abroad, was in 1995.)
“We want to make things not uncomfortable, but do things in such a way that they’re going to self-deport,” Berman said.
A first-generation American, Berman knows the significance of immigration in the country’s history. His parents came through Ellis Island in the 1920s — his father from Latvia and his mother from Poland. They learned English, opened a business and flourished. “That was a long time ago,” Berman said. “Now, we have no Ellis Island. We just have a wide-open southern border where people are climbing through the fence, and they are illegal aliens.”
Berman’s stance puts him uncharacteristically at odds with members of the state’s conservative business community, like Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond, who believes immigration reform is a federal matter. “I think most of what’s being proposed is unconstitutional,” Hammond said. “The Constitution is pretty clear that immigration is a federal matter. I hold Rep. Berman in very high regard and consider him a friend, and as friends will do from time to time, we disagree in this area.”
Berman’s immigration bills, and their heightened chances of moving this session, are one factor that led state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, who is as liberal as Berman is conservative, to call this “the most racist session of the Texas Legislature in a quarter of a century.” Not since the mid-20th century, Burnam said, has the state seen so much legislation focused at subjugating a community of color. “All of this legislation is really directed that way,” he said. “Everybody knows it. They can pretend like it’s not, but it is.”
With trademark frankness, he acknowledges that it was inspired by his misgivings about President Barack Obama, who Berman personally believes was born in Mombasa, Kenya, after his mother went into labor while swimming in the ocean during a vacation. He says the label “birther” does not embarrass him, and as a longtime board member of the historically black Texas College, he dismisses accusations that this or any of his bills are motivated by race.
“I’m just a person who wants to see fact,” he said.
Though the Obama campaign produced a certificate of live birth from Hawaii and the director of Hawaii's Department of Health confirmed Obama was born there, Berman, in all his searching, says he’s found little information to reassure him about the president. “The latest rumor I hear, and I don’t know if this is true or not,” Berman said, “is that he’s used about 25 different Social Security numbers.” Asked where he gets his information, Berman cites e-mails and online video clips. “YouTubes are infallible,” he said.
Whatever his reasoning, he is not alone in desiring such legislation. “He’s not swinging by himself,” said Chris Elam, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Texas. “There’s a platform plank out there.” In fact, there are platform planks for many of Berman’s most attention-getting legislation. And recent polls indicate that his immigration initiatives have strong support among Texans.
“I think he represents a significant segment of the Texas population,” said Edinburg state Rep. Aaron Peña, who recently switched to the Republican Party. “I’ve known Rep. Berman for eight years and know him to be earnest and sincere.”
That’s exactly how Berman wants to be known. “If I tell you something, I’m going to do it,” he said. “The only thing a person has that can’t be taken away is integrity.”