While pro-immigrant activists pressure law enforcement authorities to take a gentler approach toward undocumented offenders in county jails, some conservatives are taking aim at Republican Gov. Greg Abbott over his decision not to act immediately to stop them.
Abbott warned last week that the more lenient approach adopted recently in Dallas could put Texans’ lives at risk, and he promised to crack down on jails that free undocumented immigrants rather than hand them over to the federal government. But instead of calling lawmakers to Austin to deal with the issue immediately, Abbott wants to wait until the 2017 legislative session before proposing reforms, an approach that's not sitting well with some in his party.
“It’s not good enough,” said Katrina Pierson, a Dallas conservative activist and spokeswoman for the national Tea Party Leadership Fund. “If he continues to think it is enough concern that Texans could be hurt, then he just needs to call a special session or sign an executive order.”
Pierson noted that other states with Republican governors, such as New Mexico and South Carolina, had long ago ushered in tough reforms against so-called “sanctuary” policies in their states. North Carolina, amid strong objections from Democrats, banned them last week.
“There’s no reason to put this off,” Pierson said, echoing concerns other conservatives activists have been airing in recent days.
Abbott’s pronouncement on the issue last week was a response to new policies adopted by Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat. Under pressure from immigrant rights groups, Valdez said she would no longer automatically honor federal requests to detain certain undocumented immigrants in her jail instead of releasing them, and would begin considering them on a case-by-case basis.
Other Democrats and pro-immigrant activists — in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio in particular — are putting increasing heat on local elected officials to refuse to cooperate with federal authorities altogether. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced in November 2014 that it would prioritize violent offenders for deportation over people accused of lesser infractions. But activists want more: They argue undocumented immigrants jailed for minor crimes should not be subject to deportation at all.
Abbott did not respond to an interview request from The Texas Tribune. But in a radio interview with the talk show host Chad Hasty in Lubbock, the governor all but ruled out calling lawmakers back to Austin to stop cities and counties from adopting sanctuary policies for immigrants. Under the Texas Constitution, the governor alone has the power to call an unlimited number of 30-day sessions, and he gets to decide what goes on the agenda.
“It is not a special session item,” Abbott said in the interview.
He suggested that voters needed to elect new conservative leaders who will vote on the proposal “so that we have enough votes to pass it in the next legislative session” in 2017. The Tribune reported last week that there appeared to be enough votes in the Senate to pass the bill now, and the leader of the House Republican Caucus predicted it would sail through the lower chamber, too.
The squabbles on the left come at a time when Republican voters say border security and immigration are far and away their top concerns ahead of the 2016 presidential race. Abbott’s move has laid bare the divisions among the GOP over how to deal with the hot-button issue in Texas, which is home to two-thirds of the nation's border with Mexico.
When the last legislative session ended in June — months before the firestorm over Valdez’s policy — immigration and border security were still the most urgent problems facing the state, according to a 2015 Texas Tribune/University of Texas survey conducted that month. Twenty percent of respondents listed border security as their top concern, while another 18 percent cited immigration as the most pressing topic. And 72 percent of Texans said they supported increasing state funding for border security.
But big businesses, including homebuilders and retail interests, have for years opposed efforts to crack down on immigrant sanctuary policies. Many of the same business interests have also opposed legislation that would require Texas employers to vet the legal status of their workers though the federal government’s E-Verify system, which an increasing number of states are requiring.
That puts some hefty GOP donors at odd with grassroots activists like Dale Huls, an activist who serves on the board of the Houston-area Clear Lake Tea Party.
“It’s been a constant battle with these crony corporate interests in the Republican Party,” Huls said.
Huls accused Abbott of siding with moneyed interests and “trying to play the grassroots” by talking tough yet failing to take meaningful steps to stop illegal immigration in the workplace.
On the gubernatorial campaign trail in 2014, Abbott opposed legislation that would require Texas employers to use E-Verify. Abbott said at the time that extending E-Verify to the private sector would place too big a burden on businesses.
Once Abbott took office, he did not use his executive authority to make government contractors use the federal system. Instead, he supported and signed a bill by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, that mandates E-Verify for state agencies.
Before leaving office, Gov. Rick Perry had issued an executive order requiring that state agencies and the companies that contract with them use E-Verify. Perry declared that his order “shall remain in effect and in full force until modified, amended, rescinded or superseded by me or by a succeeding governor."
The Texas Department of Transportation has asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to clarify which policy, Perry's or Schwertner's, should stand. Abbott's office said he would “respect the process” and wait for Paxton’s opinion.
Some Republican lawmakers would like to see the policy expanded beyond its current limits.
State Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, said E-Verify is as important to securing Texas as outlawing sanctuary cities.
“Yes I do think E-Verify needs to be expanded. It’s one of the best tools we have in assisting us in securing our border,” he said. “The folks [that unauthorized hiring] draws are not just those that come here for the job but those that come here with the intent of criminal activity. They use [employment] as a cover.”
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said expanding E-Verify makes sense.
“It’s the law of the land,” said Bonnen, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “You have a law that says you are not supposed to hire people that are here illegally, but we do nothing about enforcing that law.”