With the long and contentious 2014 primary season over in Texas, it's state party convention time. And as Texas Republicans meet this week in Fort Worth to work on their party platform, immigration is set to be a key point of discussion.
Two years after approving an unprecedented change to the official state party platform that called for a national guest-worker program, Republicans are split on keeping the language. An early draft of the new platform, which The Texas Tribune obtained Wednesday, did not include the same language for a guest-worker program, setting the stage for a spirited floor debate.
Immigration is among several topics that the Republican Party of Texas will address as it puts together its platform, a nonbinding set of principles for the party. Other platform topics to be discussed at the convention, which runs through Saturday, include homosexuality and medical marijuana. Delegates will also hear from their party's leadership and other featured speakers. Among those scheduled to speak are Gov. Rick Perry; U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul; and Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott.
At the convention, influential Tea Party activists will call for removing the guest-worker language from the platform, arguing that it doesn’t address the undocumented immigrants who are already in the country. But supporters of the guest-worker plank say keeping that language would help satisfy the need for workers in Texas, without offering blanket amnesty, while reaching out to the state’s Hispanic population.
When it was passed in 2012, the “Texas Solution,” which called for the guest-worker program, was hailed by some Republicans as a breakthrough for the party, which had been struggling to appeal to Hispanic voters. The program would allow foreign nationals to come to the U.S. when jobs are available but citizens are unavailable.
Activists like Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, say they are preparing to go to the convention and campaign against the guest-worker language, which she says equates to amnesty because it brings in immigrants to the country without "any accountability."
“Many people have become informed about the wording and the ramifications it could have,” said Adams, a former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas. “It’s one thing to be told this isn’t amnesty, but it’s quite another when you work through the wording and how it’s applied and realize that it is indeed granting amnesty.”
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who recruited support for the Texas Solution during the 2012 convention, said he expected to see an enthusiastic debate at this year’s convention. But he added that he believed the guest-worker language would end up staying in the platform.
“We can be against everything and angry about everything or we could come up with a proposal,” said Patterson, who said the platform would help address labor shortages while providing a practical solution to immigration issues. “The Republican Party immigration platform has to be more than just ‘build a fence, no amnesty and secure our border.’”
On Wednesday, the early draft of the revamped Texas Solution replaced the guest-worker language with a call to enact a provisional visa program intended to “modernize” immigration laws. The suggested program would replace the current visa system — which sets quotas for the number of individuals who can enter the U.S. from other countries — and instead calls for a system that responds to labor shortages.
Arturo Martinez de Vara, a member of the platform committee, said those concerned about the removal of the guest-worker program language should not be so quick to dismiss the the newly proposed language. Martinez de Vara, who supported the guest-worker plank at the 2012 convention, said the new plank was written to clarify that the party doesn't support amnesty, though foreign nationals would be welcome to come to the U.S. when jobs are available.
The provisional visa program would not only include immigrants who wish to come to the country to work, but also those who are not of working age, such as children who arrive with their parents and the elderly who may arrive with their children, Martinez de Vara said. In the new language, the platform clearly indicates that those who obtain the provisional visas should not get a pathway to citizenship.
Meanwhile, Democrats say the immigration debate in the GOP is proof of a larger internal divide over the party’s identity.
“I think it’s pretty clear after this last runoff election that the Texas Republican Party no longer exists,” said Texas Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “It’s the Texas Republican Tea Party now. They’ve essentially taken over it in every aspect.”
Republican Party of Texas chairman Steve Munisteri, who has called for unity within the party following the runoff elections, said that divisions within the party on immigration were overstated and that he believed the provisional visa program would be approved by a majority of delegates despite what could play out as a lively floor debate on the platform.
“I’m confident we can bring everybody together no matter where they are on immigration,” Munisteri said, adding that a "practical solution" for immigration would be key to the party's long-term ability to attract new voters, particularly Hispanics. “I don’t think it’s a practical solution to say ‘everybody has to leave.'"
The positions of the state's governor and the GOP's 2014 gubernatorial nominee aren't clear on the issue. Perry and Abbott did not respond to requests for comment on whether they believe the guest-worker language should be kept in the platform. Dan Patrick, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, has previously expressed support for some form of guest-worker program. This year he said he would support cutting the language from the platform.
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at the Southern Methodist University, said the debate within the Republican Party is reflective of the party’s leadership attempting to appeal to Hispanic voters while conservatives like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Patrick, who have taken a more hardline approach on immigration, rise in popularity among voters.
“It might be too much to call it the fight for the soul of the Republican Party,” Jillson said. “But it’s certainly the fight over the direction of the Republican Party into a future that’s going to have a lot more Hispanic voters in it.”
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.