Texas Republicans are defending themselves against claims by Democrats that portions of a recently adopted GOP platform policy are little more than a move to pander to Latinos.
In doing so, Republicans are also highlighting divisions within the party on immigration matters.
Last week at the state GOP convention in Fort Worth, delegates adopted a party platform calling for a “Texas solution” for immigration reform, which includes a secure border, alternatives to mass deportations and a national guest-worker program. Party leaders have hailed the guest-worker stance as evidence that Republicans are on the side of economic migrants and the employers who need them.
But the platform also includes support for repealing birthright citizenship — a polarizing issue that has been linked to extreme terms like “terror babies” and one that Democrats say proves the GOP is pandering.
Brad Bailey, a member of the party’s immigration committee and co-author of the party platform measure, said the final version doesn’t reflect total unity, but rather a compromise.
“It’s a baby step,” he said. “There are still some things that personally, I don’t agree with. [On] birthright citizenship, our original wording that passed the temporary committee and went on to the permanent committee, it got changed at the last minute.”
The original language, he said, called for “clarification” from the executive and legislative branches of the federal government on the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in the 1860s during Reconstruction.
Bailey added that more conservative members of the party tried to eliminate the entire immigration plank several times, but two-thirds of the delegates consistently voted them down. It symbolizes a new unity when it comes to specific matters of immigration, he said. He added that the guest-worker provision was a result of remarkable conversations the committee had with moderates and with groups like the Minutemen movement.
“It was very exciting to see that our party, who often times gets labeled anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic, anti-Latino, overwhelmingly on the floor voted in favor of this,” Bailey said. “We produced a solution and we believe that Arizona Republicans did not put forth a solution; they produced a law that actually damaged and harms businessowners in their state.”
The Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, an El Paso-based immigrant advocacy group, said the only acceptable guest-worker program should be a provision within a larger immigration-reform effort. It advocates a path to legalization and not a “Band-Aid” treatment.
“It is really just tailored for agricultural workers,” Cristina Parker, a spokeswoman for the group, said of the GOP platform measure. “And that may work for some, but it’s not a solution to the fact that we have 12 million undocumented people” living in the United States.
She said she appreciated the GOP’s slight shift, but that the amendment item highlighted a desire to “have it both ways.”
“I am glad that the GOP is recognizing that there is a problem,” she said. “But the idea of repealing birthright citizenship, it’s so radical, it’s so ridiculous. That’s just a tin-foil-hat idea.”
Art Martinez, the mayor of Von Ormy, a small town south of San Antonio, and chairman of the GOP’s platform subcommittee, said the amendment item isn’t calling for the more extreme provision of stripping current citizens of their status, as some have proposed. But he said America’s practice of granting citizenship should be up for discussion.
“Nobody supports ex-post-facto laws, so a law that would remove citizenship retroactively I don’t support,” he said. “But we’re one of only three countries in the world [that grants birthright citizenship], so I think that’s a legitimate debate.”
Martinez was also quick to point out that the platform was a collection of ideas and directives, not legislation.
Rebecca Acuña, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said that the agenda was proof that the “Republicans want to create a permanent underclass among this community” and that the Democrats instead, support the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for certain illegal-immigrant students and military service members, which is something not mentioned in the GOP platform. Martinez said the Democrats had their chance when the party controlled Congress, but it failed to act on immigration reform.
The GOP platform, however, does include a provision supporting limiting in-state tuition to only legal residents and citizens. Under a measure signed into law in 2001 by Gov. Rick Perry, illegal-immigrant students can pay in-state costs if they attended a public school for at least three years. Martinez said the provision to modify that came from the education committee. As far as the DREAM Act, he said the guest-worker program would affect more immigrants.
“Whether you agree with the DREAM Act or not, it affects less that 1 percent of immigrants,” he said. “[Democrats mention it] because they like to tug at the hearts and minds of constituents and that was fine, but we were tired of rhetoric from either party; we want a solution,” he said. “So our plan helps 99 percent of immigrants, not just the kid who went to Harvard and got a doctorate, which is for that kid.”
Martinez said there was little mention of adding support for a so-called sanctuary cities measure — which would expand the immigration-enforcement authority of local law enforcement officers — to the platform. It was omitted partly because many like him believe immigration reform needs a federal solution, he said, and he added that there's also a divide within the party about how to secure the border.
The platform doesn’t mention specific border-security proposals, like adding miles to the border fence or dispatching the Texas National Guard, something the Obama administration previously did, with mixed results. Instead it includes general language.
“We demand the application of effective, practical and reasonable measures to secure our borders and to bring safety and security for all Americans,” it reads.
That could be because members of the party are split on what they see as the best solutions. People in Martinez's camp believe some current initiatives go against the concept of limited government.
“For example, building a border wall would require confiscation of ranchland, which we oppose in every other context," he said. "It’s big government, and it’s very expensive."
Even though the platform is nonbinding, many Democrats think that the GOP’s push for a guest-worker program is where the party’s moderate stance will end.
“There is little doubt in my mind that despite a shared concern to develop a guest-worker program, next session we will encounter ill-advised legislation and efforts targeted to alter birthright citizenship, abolish the Voting Rights Act, attack the education of immigrants, and seek to diminish diversity in higher education,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said Monday in the caucus’ weekly newsletter.