Democrats Set to Play Defense on Immigration

After pounding immigration issues hard during their campaigns, Republicans including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are on the hook to kill in-state tuition for undocumented students. Its survival may come down to the business lobby, and wily House Democrats.

Dream Act supporters on the capitol steps

For Democratic state Rep. Ana Hernandez, watching conservative businessman Bill Hammond brave the sleet and rain earlier this month to stand with dozens of undocumented immigrants at the Capitol served as a beacon of hope.

That day, Hammond, a former Republican lawmaker who now heads the influential Texas Association of Business, stood shoulder to shoulder with House Democrats and dozens of undocumented students rallying in support of a 14-year-old law that grants certain undocumented immigrants in-state college tuition rates.

“At the end of the day, it’s the business leaders who are going to say it’s not the best for our state,” Hernandez, D-Houston, said later of efforts to repeal the law, House Bill 1403, also known as the Texas Dream Act.

The question is whether the business community has enough sway this time around. 

When tens of thousands of undocumented Central Americans crossed into Texas over the summer, Republicans pointed to the in-state tuition bill as one of the "magnets" that lured them here. They also argued that Texas doesn't have a statewide ban on so-called sanctuary cities — entities that prevent local law officers from asking about a person’s immigration status  — which adds to the temptation to live here illegally.

Several Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, made repealing the in-state tuition bill a focus of their campaigns. That went hand in hand with beefing up border security, something Patrick said the Senate under his leadership would pursue more aggressively than any legislature in history.

With GOP-backed legislation more likely to sail through the Texas Senate after the chamber eliminated its long-standing two-thirds rule, House Democrats know their options for stopping immigration laws are limited. Their safety net in the Senate, where the sanctuary cities bill died after Democrats blocked the measure in 2011, is gone. They are outnumbered in the lower chamber.

“It’s hard to tell how far they will take it and if they really need that vote,” Hernandez said of Republican House members. “You hear that often ‘I need an anti-immigrant vote for my primary.’ I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”

Lawmakers who back the change argue it's only fair if students from surrounding states who are legal residents have to pay the higher rate.

"The difficulty I have is that we’ve created a special class of people who are not here legally, and given them an incentivized rate on education," said state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, who filed HB 360 to repeal the in-state tuition. "I am not saying people need to go. All I am saying is, if you’re going to be here, why don’t you just pay what everybody else pays?"

When the sanctuary cities legislation was a centerpiece of the 2011 legislative session, it failed to pass despite being placed on former Gov. Rick Perry’s list of emergency items during the regular and special-called sessions.

Business leaders were credited with convincing enough lawmakers to let the clock run out on sanctuary cities legislation.

Hammond reiterated his support for the in-state tuition bill Monday, though he acknowledged candidates gave the issue more play than ever before this election. That is going to make it harder to convince people to let it stand.

“A lot of the members ran on this issue, unfortunately,” he said. “To me, [keeping the tuition program] is the right thing to do. It’s a moral obligation.”

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said members will likely use the House rules to stall as much legislation as they can.

“I anticipate that we’ll use the rules effectively to make sure that anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant bills don’t come to the floor,” he said. “We have formed a broad-based coalition in the past with Texas business, Hispanic advocacy groups and the faith community to make sure we don’t have gratuitous and ideologically motivated bills coming to the floor.” (Anchia has also authored a  resolution in support of the in-state tuition policy.)

Anchia and Hernandez will find some support among Republicans, though how much is still unknown.

“To not give [those students] the opportunity to succeed, it’s not in the best interest of the state,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R- Richmond. “I understand the political ideology behind it, the radioactiveness around the issue. I know [Rick Perry] has taken heat for that, but I tell you what, I still stand by him.”

Others see the possibility for a compromise on the in-state tuition bill.

The collective body can have some very good conversations,” said state Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock. “I have ideas for what a tweak to in-state tuition would look like.”

But Gonzales said he’d also like House members, specifically first and second-term representatives, to learn about the issue before deciding how to vote.

“The body has a learning curve for a lot of new members. The intricacies of what these [laws] mean isn’t just the 140-character tweet,” he said. “Every member has the ability to sit down and learn this stuff and ask the question: Why did it pass in 2001? It means something very different today.” 

Hammond said he’d back a compromise if it meant keeping in-state tuition in some form, though he opposed sanctuary cities legislation outright.

“It should be the prerogative of the cities to make a decision on whether they want their law enforcement officers involved in immigration,” he said. “We will continue our efforts to oppose immigration legislation at the state level.”

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.