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State-Based Immigration Bills Slowly Trickling In

Two years ago, Republican legislators pre-filed several immigration-enforcement bills at their earliest opportunity. But weeks after lawmakers were allowed to pre-file bills this year, only a handful have been submitted.

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The slew of pre-filed immigration-enforcement bills that piled up in the House clerk’s office ahead of the 82nd legislative session seems like an anomaly today.

In November 2010, two months before the 82nd session’s members were sworn in, dozens of such bills were filed on the first day of pre-filing. They included bills on repealing birthright citizenship, requiring school districts to report the immigration status of their students, and making the use of the electronic employment verification system, or E-Verify, mandatory.

But a week after lawmakers were first allowed to pre-file legislation ahead of the 2013 session, only a handful of immigration-enforcement legislation is on the books.

The reason for the slowdown could be that several key members of the 82nd session are leaving. Those outgoing members include state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, whose bills last session included efforts to prevent a county's local registrar from issuing a birth certificate to a child born to undocumented immigrants in Texas. He lost a primary faceoff to Matt Schaefer. Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, who filed the divisive “sanctuary cities” bill, decided not to run again. Other outspoken legislators on immigration enforcement, like Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, who camped out at the Capitol overnight to file several immigration bills two years ago, have yet to file such legislation ahead of the next session.

But it's still early. Last session’s sanctuary cities bill, which would have denied state funds to local or state entities that prevented their law enforcement officers from inquiring into the immigration status of a person arrested or detained, was not filed until February 2011. It was easily the most contentious bill that made it to the floor for a vote, though it failed to pass. That defeat came despite the bill being placed on the emergency items list by Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry this month reiterated his support for a bill to ban sanctuary cities. But Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for the governor, said his office has not determined what, if any, items would be deemed an emergency.

Immigrant rights groups said Republican legislators are heeding a warning gleaned from the general election, in which Latinos overwhelmingly supported Democrats. And though immigration is largely a federal issue, they say the post-election environment, which is moving away from hard-line immigration policies, has trickled to the state level.

“The obvious answer is the Latino vote,” Cristina Parker, a spokeswoman for the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, said of the dearth of immigration-enforcement filings so far. “It is fair to say that Republicans are afraid of what the Latino vote means.”

The theme is playing out across the country, with the most recent evidence being the launch of a Republican Super PAC, Republicans for Immigration Reform, that supports GOP hopefuls who don’t take a hard-line stance on immigration.

But Parker said the network fully expects to see sanctuary cities legislation before the session ends, and she pointed to a few bills that have been filed as proof the battle lines are again being drawn.

They include a bill to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students, HB 122, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. In 2001, Perry signed into law a measure that allows students living in Texas at least three years to receive the in-state rate. That issue was used against him during the GOP presidential primary race, when his opponents said the law showed that the governor was too soft on illegal immigration.

Larson said the in-state tuition bill gave undocumented students an unfair advantage over other students trying to get into the same universities, specifically the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

“It has an impact on all kids raised in Texas," no matter what their ethnicity is, he said, and added that he didn’t think most people realized how far-reaching the law was until Perry raised it during his campaign. 

Larson also filed HB 177, which would allow for more access to “tents” as detention units as opposed to standard jails. “Tent” detention facilities are often used in immigration detention centers.

A former Bexar County commissioner, Larson said immigration detention wasn’t his motivation for filing the tent bill, but instead said it would be a cost-saving measure for counties who usually pay other entities to house their low-risk offenders.

On the other side, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, filed HB 152, which would add to the list of acceptable documents issued by foreign governments that applicants could use to get driver’s licenses or identification cards. Parker said the bill would go a long way toward eliminating some of the barriers to access that lawmakers passed in 2011, when they codified requirements for foreigners who must show immigration documents when they apply for a license or ID.

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