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When asked, won't tell: top three officials duck specifics on illegal hiring

The state's top elected officials are happy to go on about border security, but they get tongue tied if the conversation turns to cracking down on employers of undocumented immigrants.

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A year after taxpayers began shelling out a record $800 million to shore up the porous Texas-Mexico border, The Texas Tribune requested sit-down interviews with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus to discuss the politics and policy implications of border security and immigration.

Each refused.

The Tribune then emailed several detailed questions about their role in ensuring Texas employers don’t hire undocumented immigrants, as state law allows. Spokesmen for Abbott and Straus released prepared statements (pasted below) without specific reference to the various questions asked. Patrick’s office did not respond.

During a post-election conversation that focused largely on Donald Trump’s upset presidential victory, a Tribune reporter asked Patrick to articulate his plan for policing the loose Texas workplace. Patrick responded, “I think that we have a real shot with Trump that we will see real legal immigration reform along with securing the border. He’s serious about both. And once we get, and I’ve said in many speeches — you may have heard them — I blame both the Republicans and the Democrats over the last two years of not addressing that issue. If we have real legal immigration reform and a president that America really believes has done his best to secure the border, then the question you asked me will be irrelevant in several years."

Straus, interviewed in November by Tribune CEO Evan Smith, was asked to explain his stance on expanding electronic verification of an employee’s legal status (E-Verify) to the private sector, where most undocumented workers find jobs.

“The state seems very happy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on border security. I’d like to know what the state is doing to reduce the unquenchable demand for undocumented labor,” Smith said. “And what is the state prepared to do to punish employers who hire undocumented persons at their businesses?”

Here is how Straus responded (starts at 32:14 on video clip): “When E-Verify first became a topic it was a new program, and apparently it had some problem with it, as I recall. I may be speaking out of my depth here because I’m no expert, but it may be worth taking a look at.”

Abbott, after taking pictures with supporters in San Antonio last month, ignored a Tribune reporter’s question about immigration in the Texas workplace.

Meanwhile, the Tribune separately sent lists of questions, with slight variations due to past positions or policy initiatives, to the leaders’ three media offices. 

Among the questions: Does Lt. Gov. Patrick still believe the United States needs a guest worker program, as he said in a January 2007 press release and reiterated afterwards? Since he tried to crack down on private employers in past sessions when he was a senator, why didn’t Patrick try that once he became lieutenant governor? Where do Abbott and Straus fall on the creation of a guest worker program? Why aren’t any of them calling for mandatory electronic verification of a workers’ legal status (E-Verify) in the private sector, as the law allows?

Here are the statements, sent as catchall replies to the specific questions posed by the Tribune, from Abbott spokesman John Wittman and Straus spokesman Jason Embry:

WITTMAN: “The governor believes the Trump administration and Congress will deploy the necessary resources this upcoming year to secure our border once and for all. Until that happens, and until the border is secure, any discussion of immigration reform is premature. Reforming the immigration system rests solely with the federal government, but Texas will continue its efforts to keep its citizens safe and to enforce the law to the extent allowable by the Supreme Court. In the upcoming legislative session, Governor Abbott believes Texas should end the ability of local governments ignoring federal law, ban sanctuary cities and enhance e-verify. The governor is evaluating numerous legislative proposals already filed, and some that will soon be filed, that uphold the rule of law in Texas.”

EMBRY: “Speaker Straus has worked with his colleagues to put an unprecedented amount of resources toward border security in the form of more manpower, better equipment and thousands of new cameras along the border. The Legislature has also given law enforcement and prosecutors new tools to combat border-related crimes. Last year, the Legislature passed a bill mandating the use of an E-Verify system for state agencies and universities. The Legislature will have the opportunity to consider whether to expand the use of E-verify during the session that begins on January 10. Speaker Straus has been generally supportive of a guest worker program but also recognizes that such issues are within the purview of Congress and the federal government.”

This story is part of Tribune's yearlong Bordering on Insecurity project.

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Demographics Immigration State government Border Dan Patrick Governor's Office Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas Legislature