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The future of sanctuary cities, the DACA debate and more at The Texas Tribune immigration symposium

At an immigration symposium this weekend, our panelists discussed everything from Texas education policies for undocumented immigrants to federal proposals on border security. Check out the highlights from the event, or watch the full videos here.

The Trump administration has ushered in a time of unprecedented uncertainty for immigrants in Texas and across the United States. At a November symposium, Texas Tribune reporters interviewed lawmakers, advocates and immigrants on what the past several months have brought — and what we can expect next.

Here are the highlights from our immigration symposium this weekend — 

Immigration and the Legislature — State Rep. Diego Bernal, state Rep. Ina Minjarez, state Rep. Jason Villalba

At issue: a controversial state law many have described as a “show me your papers” regulation. Senate Bill 4, passed this year, attempts to outlaw “sanctuary cities” by allowing police to inquire about the immigration status of individuals they lawfully detain, and requiring local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The law — which drew widespread protest across the state before it became law in May — has already generated a contentious legal battle, with many of the state’s biggest cities lined up against it in court. Key parts of the law were blocked before it would have gone into effect Sept. 1. But other provisions, including the detainer measure, stand. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on the case earlier this month.


The panelists on Saturday reflected on arguments made during a 16-hour floor debate on the legislation earlier this year. Villalba, a Republican from Dallas, defended the measure as a “simple law and order bill” that brings Texas communities into compliance with federal immigration policy. Texans are concerned about illegal immigration, he said, and it was the Legislature’s job to alleviate those fears.

But the rule of law is not always “right,”argued state Rep. Ina Minjarez, a Democrat from San Antonio. “So change the law — that’s what we’re here for, to work on policy and change it.”

Bernal, another San Antonio Democrat, emphasized that the bill has brought intense fear into immigrant communities.


10:15 a.m.: Immigration and the Trump Administration — Eddie Aldrete, vice chairman of the board of directors for the National Immigration Forum and co-chairman of the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition; Daniel Garza, president of the LIBRE Initiative; A.J. Louderback, Jackson County sheriff; Celina Moreno, interim southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

Trump has yet to deliver on one of his loudest campaign promises, but the federal government has rolled out eight prototypes for a wall to be built on the border between the United States and Mexico. U.S. Customs and Border Protection will run a series of tests on those prototypes over the next two months. While critics remain skeptical that the federal government will ever build the wall, which is projected to cost $20 billion, some Texas lawmakers have helped fuel the initiative. The Border Security for America Act — which was authored by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin and would authorize $10 billion for wall construction — passed out of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee in early October.

Panelists’ views on the wall ranged from “a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money” (Moreno) to an effective enforcement strategy (Louderback).

Watch all four panelists weigh in:

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this fall that he would reverse the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to apply for renewable, two-year work permits and avoid deportation proceedings. But that course was thrown into confusion when Trump gave Congress “six months to legalize DACA” (some assert that DACA is illegal because Obama implemented it by executive order). The president then promised “no action” would be taken during the six-month period, telling DACA recipients, “you have nothing to worry about.” Hundreds of thousands of Dreamers in the country — some 120,000 of them in Texas — hang in the balance. Check out where the 38 members of Texas’ congressional delegation stand on the issue.

“Texas has the most to gain if we’re able to solve this problem and the most to lose if we can’t solve the problem,” Aldrete said Saturday morning. He added that he is “cautiously optimistic” that Congress will find a way to institutionalize the program.

Garza emphasized that “there is massive, widespread support across the country for Dreamer legislation.”

“If Dreamer legislation is passed under his watch, it’s going to be a net win for the president,” Garza said.

11:30 a.m.: The Human Cost of Immigration — J. Allen Carnes, president of Winter Garden Produce and former mayor of Uvalde; Andrea Ramos Fernandez, University of Texas at San Antonio student and DACA recipient; Joe May, chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District; Elizabeth Mejia, advocate for detained migrant women

The four panelists — two immigrant rights advocates and two immigrants fearing for their legal status — detailed intense personal experiences.

Mejia, who was held in a federal immigration detention center with her family for more than a month, described dismal conditions, including unclean water, that she believes caused health issues for her oldest son.

Watch Mejia discuss the experience of being detained:

Fernandez said that as a DACA student, she has to work twice as hard as her peers. Watch her discuss misconceptions about DACA recipients —

Issues surrounding immigrant labor have only become more pressing in the weeks since Hurricane Harvey, as rebuilding efforts are likely to rely heavily on undocumented workers. The Pew Research Center estimated last year that 28 percent of Texas’s construction workforce doesn’t have legal status; other studies have put that number even higher. But federal immigration crackdowns have made some undocumented workers afraid to accept under-the-table work.

The question of how to educate immigrant children in Texas has long been a difficult one. A 2001 law allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas public universities if they can prove they’ve been Texas residents for at least three years and graduated from a Texas high school or received a GED. But state lawmakers earlier this year again debated repealing that provision. Opponents of the 2001 law made little headway.

May, who said his community college district enrolls many undocumented students, emphasized that educational institutions play a critical role in supporting Texas’ immigrants.

“When we look at the role of education, it really is always about the greater good,” he said. “We’re proud that the individual has the opportunity to succeed — they just want the opportunity. They want a fair shake.”

1 p.m.: Screening of “Beyond the Wall” 

The documentary highlights the many challenges immigrants face when attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The panelists on Saturday — a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security official and a public policy professor — made it clear that entrenched political differences make those problems difficult to solve.

“We have to have a consistent policy,” said Jerry Robinette, a former special agent for DHS, noting that changes between presidential administrations make it difficult for enforcement agencies to effectively do their jobs. “We can’t continue what we have been doing for the last 20 years. We have not accomplished anything.”

He and Ruth Wasem, a clinical professor of public policy practice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, also focused on the role that private employers play in attracting illegal immigrants. State efforts to compel private employers to verify the legal status of their workers have failed in recent years because private employers — who are reliant on the labor of undocumented migrants — resist such legislation.

“As long as Congress doesn’t act — to do a jobs bill, or a broader-based legalization... — employers are going to say, ‘I need the workforce,’” Wasem said. “It’s not fair to the workers, regardless of their immigration or nationality status, and it’s not fair to the competition.”


On Friday evening, Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith interviewed U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza about the future of immigration. Here are three takeaways: 

By the numbers: The panelists kicked off by laying the framework for — and correcting some misconceptions about — the status of immigrants in Texas: 17 percent of Texans are immigrants and 8 percent of Texans are undocumented. The conversation about Texas immigrants should not just be about Mexico, panelists emphasized:55 percent of Texas’ immigrants hail from Mexico, but the population as a whole is incredibly diverse, they said. And the underlying economic conversation should not be forgotten: During just this hourlong panel, Garza said, the United States and Mexico did about $45 million worth of commerce.

At the federal level: Both panelists came out in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to apply for renewable, two-year work permits and avoid deportation proceedings. Castro said Democrats may soon have leverage to push the program forward when Congress begins to debate a new budget or considers raising the debt ceiling.

Both Garza and Castro criticized Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along U.S.-Mexico border as ineffective. Garza said he “can’t imagine” Mexico paying for such a project, drawing audience laughter. And for the former ambassador, it doesn’t seem necessary: “Most of what needs to be built has already been built.”

Our southern neighbor: The Trump administration has frayed the relationship between the United States and Mexico but will not sever it, the panelists agreed. “I’m not going to pretend we’re at a great moment” of cooperation between President Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, Garza said. Still, he emphasized that the economic relationship between the two countries is strong enough to be sustained beyond any one administration.

“This relationship can withstand the Trump years,” Castro said. “But if you badger a country enough, they don’t have to buy their rice or their corn or their other products from Texas.”

Watch the full videos here:

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