FORT WORTH — Late Friday night, Texas Republicans approved an unprecedented change to their official party platform: a call for a national guest-worker program.
The more moderate language is a welcoming gesture to Hispanics who have avoided the GOP because of what they view as its hardline position on immigration issues.
"It takes away a tool that Democrats have used for years to drive a wedge between conservative Hispanics and Republicans," said TexasGOPvote.com's Bob Price, who is also a delegate at the Republican Party's state convention.
The platform, which is not binding, is more of a political statement than a rulebook and often ends up advertising the state party's most radical views. That means the new philosophy won't necessarily translate to new policy — in fact, a state guest worker bill carried by two Republican legislators failed to pass last session. But it does reflect a concrete effort to reach out to Hispanic voters, which may come at the expense of irking the party's conservative activists. It passed the floor of the convention after many delegates resisted what they called a watering down of conservative principles.
"It was a tough pill to swallow; it didn't go down easily," said William Kelberlan, a delegate from Williamson County. Kelberlan said that he recognized the need for immigration reform, but that he thought more time was needed to hammer out the details of what form it should take.
The new plank, which was negotiated for months, calls for a national guest worker program to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. when jobs are available. Supporters, including Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson — who spoke to delegates in its favor — sold it as a reform that addressed labor shortages and provided a practical solution to immigration issues.
The Texas Democratic Party wasted no time in calling the announcement nothing more than pandering.
“Republicans believe that immigrants can work in our fields but not live in our neighborhoods. The GOP has been hijacked by some of the most anti-Hispanic anti immigrant factions Texas has seen,” Rebecca Acuña, the TDP communications director, said in a statement. “Their platform wants to repeal birth-right citizenship and eliminate the Texas DREAM Act. The Republican Party is attempting to throw a bone at the immigrant community.”
On its face, the Texas GOP's platform marks a decisive shift from what conservative lawmakers espoused a year ago during the 2011 regular and special sessions of the 82 Legislature. Lawmakers came within the final steps of ushering in a law that would have expanded the immigration-enforcement authority of local law enforcement officers.
An 11th-hour effort by some of the state’s top GOP donors ultimately convinced Republicans to let the clock run out on the session before the bill made it to the Gov. Rick Perry’s desk. Lawmakers, however, demurred when asked about the behind-the-scenes effort and would only say that there wasn’t enough time to pass the bill.
An effort to establish a state-run guest worker program in Texas that would satisfy the need for workers without granting blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants also failed to move out of committee last session.
House Bill 2757, by state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, would have established a 26-member commission staffed by lawmakers or their designees, and state employees to create and oversee a guest-worker pilot program, the Migrant Worker Visa Pilot Project.
Conservative activists blasted that initiative and said jobs should first go to unemployed legal residents or to citizens. And even some Democratic leaders and labor unions have argued that guest-worker programs are too restrictive and open the door for employers to abuse low-wage workers.
It’s a refrain likely to be repeated should lawmakers attempt to implement a nationwide guest worker program. It was shortly after Perry made his now infamous “heartless” comment to describe opponents of the DREAM Act that his status as the GOP front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination dissipated. And candidate Mitt Romney has not shied away from his promise to veto the DREAM Act should lawmakers pass it.
Peña, who decided not to run again in 2012, now works with the Hispanic Republicans of Texas and attended the GOP convention as a delegate from Hidalgo County. He said that the inclusion of the guest worker language in the platform represented the "convergence" that was happening between Hispanics and the GOP, with Republicans recognizing the state's changing demographics and conservative Hispanics realizing that the party better reflects their values.
"I'm so proud for the Republican Party," he said. "This is a huge statement to every Texan that Republicans are welcoming you with open arms."