As the recent surge of Central Americans entering the country illegally through Texas’ border with Mexico has drawn national attention, it has also become a major talking point for the 2014 candidates for lieutenant governor.
And while state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, and state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, have distinct differences on immigration and border security, political observers say they each have advantages as the issue remains at the forefront.
Van de Putte has indicated that the state should secure the border by providing local law enforcement with ample resources to ensure "that troopers can focus on catching criminals, not kids” while calling for immigration reform at the federal level to get to the root of illegal immigration.
At the same time, she has also talked about the humanitarian crisis Texas is facing and the importance of properly aiding the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors coming to the state as they flee violence in their home countries.
"I support our border community leaders in their call to put political rhetoric aside, deploy resources to stop criminals at the border, and provide targeted aid to assist them in providing care and shelter to refugee children," she said in a previous statement.
Since announcing his candidacy for lieutenant governor, Patrick has made immigration and border security major components of his political platform. He has called for reinforcing the border’s security year-round — not just during surges of illegal immigration — before considering any sort of immigration reform.
When it comes to discussing the current situation at the border, Patrick has said it's important to separate the “innocent children” from the “gang members who are coming under the cover of this” increase in unaccompanied minors, but he has recently emphasized that the state cannot bear the expense of caring for all immigrants.
"We do care about the poor and disenfranchised," Patrick wrote on his Facebook page last week. "However, we cannot afford to take care of the entire world and every person who wants to come to America legally or illegally."
Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, said that the two approaches to the issue work for each candidate but that they must each deal with different challenges.
“Van de Putte has to walk more of a tightrope because she has to balance sympathy and concern for the welfare of these children without being seen overly soft on border security,” Jones said.
Van de Putte recently wrapped up a three-day stint in the Rio Grande Valley, in which she toured the Customs and Border Protection immigrant detention facility in Brownsville and met with state and local leaders to discuss the ongoing response to the border surge.
She also described the undocumented immigrants’ plight as something that hits close to home for her, likening it to her own family's move to the United States during the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century.
“They didn’t come for economic opportunity; they came because their businesses were being burned, because their families were being killed,” Van de Putte told the McAllen Monitor’s editor, Carlos Sanchez, during an interview on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Jones said that while Patrick can be successful in stressing border security, he must avoid making the “same type of unforced errors” Republicans have previously made when some of their comments have sounded anti-immigrant.
“Rick Perry is a good example of … being able to go down there and be on message, focused on border security,” Jones said.
Patrick, who said he will be visiting the border “very shortly,” has been previously criticized for describing the influx of undocumented immigrants as an “illegal invasion,” and he has been quoted saying that undocumented immigrants bring “third-world diseases” like leprosy and tuberculosis into the U.S.
Patrick has said he is concerned about addressing the issue of the “hardened criminals” who are entering the country illegally. He has repeatedly said that his comments related to diseases that immigrants may carry are based on official reports, not his opinion.
“I’ve been criticized about these comments in the past, but it’s now all coming back to fruition,” Patrick said Tuesday in a radio interview. “This is not being anti-immigrant; it’s not anti-Hispanic. This is about law and order.”
Van de Putte has taken issue with some of his comments, calling his language inappropriate.
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville who studies border issues, said both candidates have positioned themselves on these issues in line with their parties' national stances while giving themselves a tool to further appeal to Texas voters by upholding their local party’s stance.
For Patrick, this means pushing Texas Republicans’ more hardline stance on immigration. For Van de Putte, it’s about pushing for border security while being a good neighbor to Mexico.
In the end, it seems Van de Putte and Patrick have little to lose while talking about immigration and border security issues when it comes to their voting base, Correa-Cabrera said. But depending on how successfully they drive home their messages, she added, they could bring “indecisive” or independent voters into the ballot box.
Less than four months ahead of Election Day, both candidates are working with similar war chests to spread that message. Van de Putte is holding onto $1.1 million cash on hand while Patrick is working with $946,982 in the bank, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.
“More than attract or make people change their minds, this [issue] will mobilize,” Correa-Cabrera said. “That’s the possible impact of an aggressive campaign focused on this issue when it's a big issue in the United States, but especially in Texas.”
Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.