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Guest Column: Immigration, Perry and a Divided GOP

Whatever Gov. Rick Perry's place in the party and his political future, immigration politics are built into the coalition of interests in the Texas GOP.

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 strange saga of anti-sanctuary cities legislation in the 82nd session amplified the sharp dissonance around immigration politics inside the Texas Republican Party. The essence of the problem is the conflict between conservative Republican voters with intense preferences for restrictions on immigrants and immigration, on one hand, and the much more pragmatic positions of key Republican leaders, elected officials, and business interests in the state on the other. Gov. Rick Perry, as the leader of the party, has maneuvered through this conflict with mixed results. Whatever his place in the party and his political future, the problem is built into the coalition of interests in the Texas GOP.

Legislation prohibiting cities from declining to enforce federal immigration law was incarnated as a campaign issue by candidate Perry in the 2010 gubernatorial race, then rose again as an emergency item declared by the governor as the session began. The legislation haunted both the legislative sessions, with a version passing in the House but not the Senate in the regular session, then another version passing in the Senate but not the House in the special session. The failures were greeted with relief by Democrats, who had fought the legislation tooth and nail, and with howls of displeasure from conservative Republicans and allied groups.

Immigration and the Republican rank and file

For all of the thrashing about the sanctuary cities legislation, it was a small part of a larger body of restrictive immigration measures floated by Republican activists and elected officials. The Texas GOP has prominently embraced restrictive politics and policies on immigration, focused especially — though not exclusively — on illegal immigration. The 2010 Republican Party of Texas platform opens its discussion of "legal immigration" with the rallying cry of "One nation, one flag, one language, one loyalty," then quickly asserts that a legal immigrant "is in every facet an American, and nothing but an American. There can be no divided allegiance. Anyone who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't American at all."

On illegal immigration, the Texas GOP platform includes a litany of anti-immigrant enforcement measures, including but not limited to repeal of the citizenship rights currently granted to the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S., "amnesty in any form leading to citizenship," elimination of day labor centers and sanctions for hiring undocumented or fraudulently documented workers. For practical purposes, the platform establishes an explicitly nativist position on national identity and immigration.

Party platforms are, of course, notorious receptacles of ideas of party extremists, to be paid only the most pro forma lip service by most candidates and then blithely ignored by elected officials. But public opinion surveys suggest that the conservative activists roaming the halls of every Texas Republican convention hunting RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) are not far removed from the party's voters on immigration matters.

The February 2011 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll of self-identified registered voters included a battery of immigration-related questions. The responses revealed substantial Republican support for various restrictions on immigrants, both legal (in the case of measures aimed at U.S.-born offspring of illegal immigrants) and illegal. The only real consensus among Republicans, Democrats and independents was support for "requiring businesses to verify the immigration status of every worker and fining businesses if they are caught intentionally employing illegal immigrants." Police checking the immigration status of those suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, banning "sanctuary cities" (though the phrase wasn't used) and opposition to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants raised in Texas were supported by far more than 50 percent of Republicans. (An archive of graphics of results and cross tabulations can be viewed on UT's Texas Politics website or here at the Tribune.) Restrictive positions were also popular, if a little less intensely, among self-identified true independents.

Immigration-related questions, by party identification (February 2011 UT/TT Poll)
Immigration positionDemRepIndTotal
Support employer verification of citizenship 80% 95% 80% 87%
Support requiring law enforcement to check immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally 47% 88% 73% 70%
Disapprove of city governments that don’t enforce immigration laws ("sanctuary cities") 49% 88% 63% 69%
Oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants 43% 74% 55% 27%
Favor repeal of birthright citizenship in 14th Amendment 30% 70% 46% 53%
Opposed to comprehensive reform/path to citizenship 31% 74% 43% 54%

[Responses are drawn from the February 2011 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. N=800 (self identified registered voters), MOE +/- 3.46 for the overall sample. Click here for a copy of the poll responses.]

Gimme shelter: GOP business and immigration politics

We have less systematic data about what the business leaders want (let alone what they actually do in the political arena). But political activities and public pronouncements on immigration-related issues suggest that the positions held by the business constituency in the Republican Party differ noticeably from the GOP rank and file.

Compare, for example, the support for comprehensive immigration reform on the legislative page on immigration at the website of the Texas Association of Business (TAB) with the Republican Party of Texas platform and statewide polling numbers. The GOP rank and file is evenly split on comprehensive reform if it includes a path to citizenship for any illegal immigrants. One TAB proposal is to allow "hard-working, tax-paying undocumented workers to earn legal status." In general, the TAB positions look for reform that avoids disruptions in the existing labor market and increases predictability for employers. That is a markedly different set of concerns than what is expressed in the Republican Party platform.

These differences broke out in the open, with still unfolding consequences, when anti-sanctuary measures were considered by the Legislature this year. Public declarations of opposition by homebuilder Bob Perry, a mega-contributor to the governor (no relation) and other Republicans, and by Charles Butt of the H-E-B grocery chain, a big contributor to Democrats and Republicans, introduced a new level of opposition. TAB's position was old news, and the organization had not been particularly vocal in promoting its moderate immigration stance. The salvo from Perry and Butt was a dramatic uptick in public opposition from within the GOP fold.

As has been widely reported, Bob Perry is one of the single most important contributors to the governor: With his wife Doylene, according to a report based on public records issued recently by Texans for Public Justice, the homebuilder has contributed over $2.5 million to the governor's political efforts over the last decade. Butt is not quite in that league as a Republican stalwart, but is no piker when it comes to supporting the governor: He gave $250,000 over the last decade, including three contributions totaling $75,000 between December 2009 and November 2010. As the Houston Chronicle reported in June, the two hired HillCo Partners to lobby against the sanctuary legislation — and were relatively public about having done so. Between this public relations and lobbying effort, the qualms of big business were apparent to everyone in the Legislature.

The anti-sanctuary bill failed in the legislative chaos of the final days of the special session. Anti-immigration advocates fumed. One conservative group, the Grassroots Texans Network, issued an open letter to Perry urging him to call another special session to deal with immigration issues. The letter cited his and, more pointedly, the Legislature's failure not only on the anti-sanctuary city bill, but also on the array of other immigration bills that failed to survive the treacherous journey through the legislative process. The letter was signed by a handful of self-identified members of Texas Tea Party organizations.

The governor hasn't called another special session, and aides have said it's unlikely that he will.

Rick Perry and the double-edged sword

It is no small irony that the anti-sanctuary bill died just as Perry's presidential bid was ratcheting up. Perry gave the subject of sanctuary cities a cameo role in Texas politics when his campaign attempted to paint Houston as a "sanctuary city" a la Berkeley, despite the fact that the Texas Department of Public Safety enunciated a policy to "not engage in enforcement of federal immigration statutes." In the run-up to the November election, the governor had a somewhat contentious exchange with Tribune Editor and CEO Evan Smith in which he denied that the DPS policy was comparable to the City of Houston policy, but declined to explain how or why. In January, the subject of sanctuary cities was transformed from a campaign attack to a legislative priority when the governor officially designated "abolishing sanctuary cities in Texas" an emergency item for the 82nd Legislature.

Perry's use of sanctuary cities played out as an attempt to tap into intense concerns about illegal immigration within the Republican base, but without materially damaging the interests of his business constituencies or impairing the long-term prospects of the GOP in the face of demographic trends that project a significant rise in the Latino share of the Texas population. The figure of former California Gov. Pete Wilson casts a long shadow in many Republican war councils these days.

Talking about sanctuary cities during the gubernatorial campaign provided the means of both bludgeoning Bill White and diverting the attention of both the White campaign and the news media from the looming state budget crisis and other themes that might have worked to Perry's disadvantage. It also played into Republican efforts to construct — for the benefit of Latino voters — a separation between law-and-order tinged issues of "border security," on one hand, and immigration approaches a la Arizona, on the other hand. Perry rode the law-and-order angle hard during the campaign, repeatedly invoking the murder of a Houston policeman by an illegal immigrant and using it in his advertising. But he also explicitly pronounced that the Arizona tact "would not be the right direction for Texas.

This worked in the 2010 campaign, but the strategy soured in the sloppy politics of the last session. The Legislature's failure to pass a symbolic sanctuary city bill, which would have enabled him to declare victory, leaves the gap between the ground troops and the generals of the Republican party on immigration policy exposed, unresolved, and probably more raw than when the session began.

At this moment, the question of what to do about immigration and changing American demographics badly divides Republican elites from a large chunk of the Republican Party voting base in Texas. The issue has been a double-edged sword for Perry as he has led the party to stunning electoral successes in recent years. He selectively framed immigration in symbolic but largely inconsequential issues like sanctuary cities, enabling him to fire up Republican voters, even as he avoided cutting into the business interests of supporters who, like Bob Perry, Charles C. Butt and their fellow travelers, depend on the low labor costs and consumer demand that immigrant populations, legal and illegal, bring with them to Texas. The Governor wielded this sword expertly in 2010, and was rewarded with another term and a platform for seeking higher office.

Repeating this in 2011 has proved more difficult once the unruly 82nd Legislature and riled-up conservative activists got involved. Immigration is an issue about which Perry is more pragmatic than much of the Republican base, and it lays bare one of the underpinnings of his success in Texas. He and his advisers are remarkably attuned to the voices of their core voting constituencies — but when business talks, Perry hears them, too. His skill at performing this delicate act has propelled him toward a national stage. However his trip to the big show turns out, back home, immigration remains unfinished business.

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