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Measures That Aim to Benefit Undocumented Immigrants in Limbo

The tone on immigration this session is vastly different compared with 2011, when the Legislature entertained more than 100 immigration-enforcement measures. But legislation that would benefit undocumented immigrants is still unlikely to pass on its own.

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As lawmakers have largely taken a hands-off approach this legislative session on immigration-enforcement measures, efforts aimed at improving the lives of undocumented immigrants are also expected to get little momentum as the session winds toward its conclusion.

A bill that would have created a driver’s permit for undocumented immigrants in Texas, House Bill 3206, by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, has little chance of passing as a standalone measure. The same goes for House Bill 3738, by state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, which would have prevented law enforcement from asking victims of crimes or witnesses about their immigration status.

The bills were voted out of the powerful House State Affairs Committee, a feat in itself for the bill’s Democratic authors as the committee has a Republican majority. But the proposals were not placed on the House calendar by Tuesday’s deadline for consideration by the full chamber. They aren’t dead — lawmakers can find “vehicles,” where legislation can be revived through rule suspensions or amendments to bills still navigating through the process. But the measures face, at best, a steep climb this late in the process — an indication that the majority GOP is reluctant to support the measures.

Burnam said that the tone has changed this session because of the overwhelming turnout by Latinos during the 2012 elections, when they largely rejected what they considered anti-immigration messages from conservatives. But, Burnam added, it isn’t enough to completely turn the tide.

“To the Republican base, the ones that vote in the primary, their attitude has not changed,” he said. “So while there are a lot of Republicans on this House floor that know it’s the right thing to do, it’s intelligent public policy, they’re afraid of having to vote on it on the House floor because of primary consideration.”

State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said that Burnam’s assessment is probably accurate for some Republicans — and that some Democrats also vote against other issues for the same reason — but that he thought the bill was part of a piecemeal solution to a larger issue.

“It’s a variable in a bigger equation," said Hilderbran, who voted against the bill in committee. “Even though it makes more sense [than other proposals], my concern is that we need a comprehensive reform bill before we address these singular, smaller issues.”

Alonzo’s bill would not create a document that could be used for identification purposes, like a passport or a state-issued driver’s license. Instead, it would only enable holders to drive and purchase insurance. It would also require that applicants submit to background checks and be fingerprinted, which supporters say make it a common-sense public safety item.

State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, supports Alonzo’s bill and helped vote it out of the State Affairs Committee. She said, however, that the pushback is a result of constituents perceiving it as an immigration issue and not as a public safety measure.

“There just isn’t good information and people are making decisions based on what looks like giving illegal immigrants a driver’s license,” she said. “It’s not about that. They’re here, they are noncitizens driving, they own cars but they don’t have insurance.”

Alonzo is upbeat about his bill’s prospects. He said that after conversations with leadership in both chambers, he thinks the proposal still has life.

“Although it’s not on the calendar, just like any bill, if the leadership wants to pass it, it will pass,” he said. “The opposition isn’t as strong, or as organized, as we saw two years ago.”

Alonzo has support from the Norman Adams, the Republican co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy, and Dr. Steve Hotze, the GOP donor who was flanked by several Republican legislators at the Capitol this week when he announced he was filing suit to prevent President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Hotze said he was going to lobby the state’s leadership to try and sway lawmakers to pass the measure.

“We are very supportive of a driver’s permit bill for individuals that came here but didn’t get through the legal process,” he said. “I appreciate the hard work they perform in the state and the benefits they are to the state. I want to see what we can do to get them legalized so they can raise their families.”

Adams was more blunt about the bill’s prospects.

“The only reason SB 9 [which included that driver’s license applicants prove their legal status] got through in the last session was because the Senate tagged it onto a finance bill,” he said. “Nothing is dead until the fat lady sings.”

Burnam wasn’t as hopeful about his legislation.

“The victory for that bill was getting it voted out of committee,” he said.

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