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To fight anti-"sanctuary" bill, Democrats may highlight "sanctuary industries"

Outnumbered and with time running out, Texas Democrats hoping to kill anti-"sanctuary" legislation are open to shining a spotlight on so-called "sanctuary industries" that often turn a blind eye toward hiring unauthorized labor.

Rep. Rafael Anchia speaks at the Capitol on April 7, 2015.

As Texas Democrats strategize how to continue pushing back against state-based immigration proposals, they’re considering a tactic often embraced by some far-right members of the Republican Party to assist their efforts.

“I would just say that all options are on the table to expose the hypocrisy of only focusing on immigrants and not on Texas businesses that rely heavily on them,” state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, told the Tribune. “There may be a multi-tiered strategy to expose the hypocrisy and bring business to the table.”

Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, made his remarks last week, a day after he was in the middle of a bruising debate on the House floor. Anchia unleashed a six-minute tirade on the floor after state Rep. Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, offered an immigration-enforcement amendment to legislation that would create a new system of monthly payments for relatives caring for children in their families who have been abused or neglected. The amendment would have prevented undocumented families in the same circumstances from receiving state aid.

“If this is how the session’s going to go, and you guys want to talk about ‘illegals’ and you guys want to talk about immigrants and you guys want to talk about sanctuary cities, well, we’re going to start talking about sanctuary industries,” Anchia said during the debate, coining a new term about businesses that don’t fully vet their employees’ legal status.

Though Democrats have always had data on economic contributions from the immigrant community in their playbook, they’ve rarely raised alarm bells about unauthorized hiring. Most Republican state leaders have also long been silent on the issue.

According to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center, Texas' 1.1 million unauthorized immigrant workers made up 8.5 percent of the state’s total labor force, concentrated in industries like agriculture, hospitality and especially construction.

Anchia insisted Democrats aren’t advocating for mass deportations or more enforcement. Instead, lawmakers are considering a focus on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants as a challenge to those businesses — and the Republican lawmakers that support them — to speak out against current proposals moving through the state Capitol.

Last month, the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 4, an anti-sanctuary cities bill that would punish local and state government entities and college campuses that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials or enforce immigration laws. The House is working on its own version of the legislation, and chances are some form of state-based enforcement will make it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk before the last gavel drops in May. Abbott declared the issue one of four emergencies of the session, allowing those issues to be taken up by lawmakers more quickly.

But unlike past sessions, businesses have remained fairly silent on this year’s immigration proposals, Anchia said. 

“You have businesses that are not lining up like they did in 2011 to stop the sanctuary cities legislation,” Anchia said. “So they have kind of ceded the field. And if we just roll over on this one like business is rolling over, then the next session it’s going to be something else and the next session it’s going to be something else.”

Despite former Gov. Rick Perry’s placing anti-sanctuary city legislation on his emergency item list in 2011, the business community, including HEB grocery chain CEO Charles Butt and the late home residential construction magnate Bob Perry, played an integral role in convincing lawmakers to let the clock run out on the proposals. But the legislation considered this session is different in that there’s a stronger emphasis on county sheriffs who refuse to hold undocumented immigrants for transfer to federal agents for possible deportation.

In a statement, Cathy DeWitt, the Texas Association of Business's vice president of governmental affairs, said the TAB, by direction of its board of directors, opposes state attempts to resolve federal comprehensive immigration reform but supports proposals that fall under state authority like human trafficking and property crimes.

"TAB understands the intent of SB 4, but disagrees how wide of a net it casts. Safety of our citizens is paramount but we cannot ignore the unintended consequences of blanket mandates that affect labor supply as well as the economy," DeWitt said. "Law enforcement must have the flexibility to work with federal officers without strict mandates. We urge legislative leaders to put politics aside on this heated issue. Legislators must work with local and county law enforcement agencies to create workable policies that keep Texas safe as well as keep the Texas economy strong.

During last week’s debate, Anchia made a reference to another sensitive immigration issue: the use of the federal electronic employment verification known as E-Verify.

During his floor speech Wednesday, Anchia called out Keough, a former car salesman and current pastor of the Woodlands Bible Church, for likely selling cars to and hiring undocumented immigrants.

“Unless he used E-Verify — I’d be surprised,” Anchia said. After the floor action, Keough was asked about the allegations and would only say he thought Anchia's remarks were the result of an emotional debate. 

"I understand that when people are passionate about things that they say things that maybe they wish they wouldn’t have said," he said. "And so I am just going to leave it at that. Because I understand."

Texas does have an E-Verify mandate, but it only applies to state agencies and the businesses they contract with. That means that despite claims by the state’s Republican leadership that Texas is tough on immigration, the state’s oversight of hiring practices in the private sector is only about average.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, has filed legislation that would codify the contractor requirement. In a statement after he filed Senate Bill 23, he said, “According to the Legislative Budget Board, there are currently more than 30,000 active government contracts between the State of Texas and private businesses, collectively valued at more than $91 billion.”

Schwertner’s bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Business & Commerce Committee on Thursday. It’s unclear if any lawmakers will try to amend the bill to widen the scope of businesses required to participate in E-Verify.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, who chairs the lower chamber’s Democratic caucus, said discussions on immigration and several other issues are ongoing between the group. And he reiterated that you wouldn’t see the Democrats “do anything that would hurt people who are simply here simply to earn a living and support their families.”

But like Anchia, he said it’s not off limits to draw attention to what the reality is on the ground.

“It is very fair to raise the question: What is the role of business in this issue?” Turner said.  “And if businesses are hiring people illegally by not verifying status or knowingly accepting false documentation, then they’re breaking the law. And if we’re going to be going after people who are breaking the law, then we should go after everyone.”

Anchia acknowledges that some of the rhetoric might sound alarm bells for the private sector. But he said Democrats should use whatever means necessary to push back against the immigration legislation.

“It is true that if some of this stuff passes, businesses are going to be impacted. And I think we’ll be able to get their attention,” he said. “But the only way we’re going to be able to get their attention is the discussion of supply and demand. Otherwise it’s just going to be one-sided and the immigrants at the federal or at the state level are going to be targeted.”

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business, Charles Butt and Bob Perry have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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