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Legislature Considers Softer Line on Immigration

Two years after legislation to ban "sanctuary cities" was made a top priority, immigration legislation is barely discussed at the state Capitol. It’s put some lawmakers in a weird spot — especially when some of their own recently came out in support of what’s a no-no in politics — amnesty.

A U.S. Border Patrol helicopter patrols over the Paso del Norte International Bridge between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on Tuesday March 27, 2012.

The Texas Legislature is more subdued on issues concerning the border — call it immigration light. It is already February and lawmakers have barely uttered the words “sanctuary cities,” much less filed legislation as divisive as that bill became two years ago.

Even if they did, chances are the measures wouldn’t get very far.

That's not to say there are no efforts to crack down on illegal immigration this session. Measures already filed would repeal in-state tuition for undocumented public high school students, mandate use of Secure Communities, and facilitate creation of tent prisons. But those who were paying attention to Gov. Perry’s State of the State speech may have noticed something — the words border, sanctuary, and immigration never surfaced. And there is no emergency call (so far) of the sort that made last session’s immigration bills a priority. In fact, Republican leaders have said that when asked, Gov. Rick Perry has said things seem to be going fine the way they are.

So what’s been filed?

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, filed the House bill to repeal in-state tuition. That comes despite Perry’s recent comments indicating he thinks it won’t reach his desk. Larson also filed HB 177, which would allow for more access to “tents” as detention units as opposed to standard jails. He said that is more of a cost-savings measure and not necessarily related to immigration, even though tents are commonly used to house immigration detainees. State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, filed a bill to crack down on knowingly hiring unauthorized workers. But it isn’t punitive, she says, and doesn't require use of the electronic verification system known as E-verify. It’s more of an introduction to the program, she said: “This was just an easy way to get us on track to encourage businesses to use E-verify.”

Freshman state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, filed HB 359, which would require police officers to verify the immigration status of a person within 48 hours of his or her arrest, through the Secure Communities program or through a peace officer authorized to conduct immigration checks. Secure Communities is already in place in every county jail in Texas and Krause said that even so, he is tweaking his bill after some constituents voiced some concerns. He said he did not want to file anything that wouldn’t get anywhere — something that might happen if he gave it more teeth.

And on the federal front, a group that includes four Republican senators unveiled its plan for immigration reform — one that includes a pathway to citizenship — taking away a blugeon some conservatives had been using on Democratic opponents. Now it's a little more bipartisan. President Obama also unveiled what he’d like to see and, like the senators’ pitch, it includes more border enforcement, which means his administration’s record level of removals could continue. It doesn’t mean a common argument from conservatives — that reform can’t be discussed until the border is secure — will go away. It likely means that it will change in tone, however.

Of course, some diehards still smell a rat. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, rebuked the Senate proposal as counterproductive. “By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration,” he said in a statement.

It goes to show what a difference two years and one general election can make: Lawmakers have started comparing a policy championed by Barack Obama to a measure last passed under Ronald Reagan's leadership.

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