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Despite Early Momentum, Immigration Bills Fall Flat

Though campaign promises to enact immigration-enforcement measures and repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students didn't see the light of day, Republicans who championed the measures said they'll be back next session to try again.

Texas Association of Business CEO Bill Hammond, speaks in favor of HB 1403 which was passed in 2001 and grants all Texans in-state college tuition regardless of immigration status on April 13th, 2015

As the sun begins to set on the 84th Texas Legislature, promises to enact tough immigration legislation remain unfulfilled. State Sen. Donna Campbell says she’s not giving up just because the last gavel is about to drop.

Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, tried unsuccessfully to pass Senate Bill 1819, which would have eliminated a 14-year-old policy that allows non-citizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

“Unfortunately, it takes a [three-fifths] vote to bring a bill to the floor, and I was unable to find those final two to three affirmative votes once the bill passed out of committee,” she said in an email Saturday. “I am disappointed that we were unable to get this bill passed under the current body, but I have two years to change a couple members' minds and try again next session."

Republican lawmakers could take a similar conciliatory tone on another contentious issue, Senate Bill 185, by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock. That bill sought to ban so-called “sanctuary cities” – the common term for local governments whose peace officers don’t enforce immigration laws.

The proposals seemed likely to pass, at minimum, the upper chamber in the early months of the session. The crush of unauthorized migration last summer in the Rio Grande Valley kept the issues at the forefront, and some GOP senators said during their campaigns that passing immigration legislation was a priority.

But two Republican senators, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, opposed the measures. Eltife said the issues were about local control; Estes said he feared both could have dire unintended consequences. Their opposition blocked both from going before the full chamber for a vote.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a coalition opposing the bills formed early, and it held “regardless of a great deal of pressure that was put on some people.”

“We spent time talking to individual members and talking to people outside the Capitol who in turn talked to members, so that we could be sure we weren’t making any assumptions about where someone might be on these bills, simply because of their party,” said Watson, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

When then-Gov. Rick Perry declared eliminating sanctuary cities an emergency item in 2011, the business community and some conservative groups worked behind the scenes to stop the legislation. Watson said this year saw a repeat of those actions.

“There was a lot of effort that went into melting away labels and looking, with some level of precision, at what these bills actually did,” he said.

Immigrant rights groups are also sharing the credit for stopping the measures. They cite public testimony, which at times lasted until the early-morning hours during committee hearings, as a possible game-changer this session.

“No doubt this was made possible through your help in contacting your Senators and sharing your stories,” the Latino Center for Leadership Development, a coalition of educators, business groups and advocates, said in a statement issued after key deadlines for the bills had passed. “Thanks to the strong coalition that you helped build in order to KeepHB1403 intact for our families. Thank you for your efforts!”

The House steered away from the issues all session, and lawmakers in the lower chamber said they would not amend border security bills with immigration legislation. What could have been the final vehicle for the "sanctuary cities" bill, House Bill 11, a broad-based border security bill by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk late last week.

The Senate sponsor of that measure, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, did not allow amendments, and Bonnen said he wasn't sure if any others senators discussed attaching anything. But he wouldn't have allowed it, he said.  

"It would have made it harder on the bill," he said. "I personally support the sanctuary cities bill. But it doesn't belong on the border security bill."

The conservative grassroots is also likely to continue hounding lawmakers after the session. Several Tea Party groups released a statement as key deadlines approached in May warning lawmakers that they wouldn’t settle for excuses about “running out of time” on several issues, including immigration-enforcement legislation.

“It’s beginning to look as if some of those campaign promises are ‘all hat and no cattle,’” JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America, a conservative East Texas group, said in a statement. “With the condition our country is in, we’re in no mood for any stalling, slow walking, or backtracking from Texas leaders.”

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