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Immigration backlash in Texas

A sheriff's officer inspects a section of the Rio Grande that marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico near Laredo, Texas.

KAI RYSSDAL: Immigration reform returned to Capitol Hill today via the House of Representatives. A bipartisan bill was introduced that would increase border security and create a legal path to citizenship. Undocumented workers would have to learn English, pay back taxes and pass a criminal background check before being eligible.

Washington might be looking for compromise on immigration, but there's a trend in the opposite direction in some border states. Michael May reports the Texas Legislature is considering a slew of bills that aims to make life tougher for illegal immigrants.


MICHAEL MAY: Texas State Representative Leo Berman is angry enough about the influx of immigrants into Texas that he's willing to take on the U.S. Constitution. He's filed a bill that would make Texas the first state to refuse citizenship to children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. — a direct challenge to the 14th amendment.
LEO BERMAN: You have a woman who's waiting until she's right at nine-monthes pregnant, come across border illegally, checks into a U.S. hospital, gives birth to a child, pays absolutely nothing for the medical care that she's received . . . and then is rewarded with U.S. citizenship for that child while she's committing a crime against the United States.

Berman's bill is the most extreme immigration bill introduced this session. But it's hardly alone. Another bill would cut in-state tuition for undocumented students. Another would tax all the remittances sent from Texas to Central and South America.

Texas has historically resisted these kinds of harsh immigration measures. But in recent years, more and more immigrants have moved to historically white rural and suburban areas of the state looking for work.

Democratic Representative Trey Martinez Fisher is vice chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He says immigrants have become a political scapegoat.

TREY MARTINEZ FISHER: All they want to do is work and provide a meaningful wage for their family. There's nothing wrong with that. That's what this country was built on. I do believe, however, that the composition of this country is changing. And for some, they seem to have a problem with that.

But the backlash isn't simply cultural. The influx of immigrants has put a strain on local health and education resources.

But a study done by the Texas State Comptroller last year showed that undocumented immigrants actually boosted the state economy overall by $17.7 billion a year.

So, where Republican primary voters see a threat, the state's business leaders see an opportunity. Agriculture, construction and hospitality all rely heavily on immigrant labor.

Bill Hammond is the head of the Texas Association of Business, a long-time ally of the Texas Republican party.

BILL HAMMOND: If we were simply to send 12 million people back home, it would have a disastrous impact on Texas and the U.S. economy. We believe that those who are here who are undocumented should be given an opportunity to obtain legal status and eventually citizenship. That's our position — we've got to make the best of this situation.

It's a rare occurrence here. The grassroots base of the Texas Republican Party publicly feuding with the party's biggest contributors.

Harvey Kronberg is the editor of the online Quorum Report, which covers Texas politics.

HARVY KRONBERG: Ultimately, I suspect that the people who fund the Republican Party will be successful in putting the brakes on the anti-immigrant impulses of the primary voter.

In fact, many Texas Republicans understand they could legislate themselves right out of existence.

When President George Bush was Governor of Texas, he reached out to the immigrant population. And for good reason — the state is likely to be majority Hispanic within 20 years.

KRONBERG: It's the fastest-growing pool of new voters in the country, and clearly the fastest-growing pool of new voters in Texas. And I think most establishment Republicans look to California and how quickly California flipped from being a Republican state to being a Democratic state, and see that it's entirely possible here if this gets out of hand.

That trend is already happening across the country. In the midterm elections, only 30 percent of Latinos voted Republican. That's down 10 points from 2004.

In Austin, this is Michael May for Marketplace.

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