So whose job is it, exactly, to stem the tide of illegal entries into a state? Someone sneaking across the Rio Grande from Mexico is entering both the state of Texas and the United States of America, but if the authorities take notice of his presence here, the federal government will claim jurisdiction, preempting, for the most part, anything Texas might have to say about the nature of the hospitality extended to the unauthorized visitor
The problem is that the federal government seems insufficiently interested in preventing illegal immigration. This is what finds us in the second decade of the twenty-first century with between seven and twenty million illegals among us. If that seems an absurdly broad range, consider that illegals do not exactly raise their hands for the census. You therefore get those who don’t consider illegal immigration a pressing problem citing the lower figure, while more concerned voices cite the higher. If we split the difference at about fourteen million, that’s between 4 and 5 percent of all the human beings in the United States.
If Texas harbored only its pro rata share of illegal immigrants, there would be over a million of them. Many come here, stay here, burrow in under the radar, and funnel countless dollars back to their families at home. The dollars that would otherwise turn over multiple times in the local economy, helping businesses grow and hire more workers, are lost. Texas leaders know that illegal immigration is a drag on economic growth before we even get to the burden placed on services, from schools to emergency rooms. So again we face a quandary: Do we deny innocent kids an education? Slam the ER door on the sick and injured? We can’t even agree on what to charge the innocent children of illegal immigrants when it comes to college tuition.
One of the first things Rick Perry did as governor in 2001 was to support in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. The Texas version of the so-called DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) sailed through the state house and senate, but enthusiasm for the measure has dwindled. Perhaps the lawlessness of the Obama years has focused our attention on the letter of the law. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and all three challengers for his job in the 2014 Republican primary came out against the law, including one candidate who had voted for it in the senate. That unanimity probably reflects a get-tough ardor in the GOP base. But if that’s true, how has Governor Perry enjoyed ten long years of broad approval without putting on the full armor of a border warrior?
His 2006 and 2010 re-election campaigns featured imagery of a watchful governor guarding his state’s threshold. But Perry never couched his vigilance in terms of stemming the tide of illegals marching northward to occupy our jobs and drain our social budgets. The language was always about drug cartels and marauding gangs, valid concerns but not at the heart of the border debate in Texas or anywhere else.
Perry and other state officials, of either party, can always shrug their shoulders and remind voters that borders are a federal matter and that the best solution is for Washington to get its act together and start enforcing laws we already have. That approach wasn’t good enough for Arizona, however, where the legislature and Governor Jan Brewer crafted a law that removed the blindfold from law enforcement officers. Senate Bill 1070 empowered them to inquire about immigration status during otherwise valid stops, detentions, or arrests
That was too spicy for Perry, who in April 2010 distanced himself from Arizona’s boldness. “I fully recognize and support a state’s right and obligation to protect its citizens, but I have concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona and believe it would not be the right direction for Texas,” he said in a written statement. “For example, some aspects of the law turn law enforcement officers into immigration officials by requiring them to determine immigration status during any lawful contact with a suspected alien, taking them away from their existing law enforcement duties, which are critical to keeping citizens fully safe.”
Let me restate my overall admiration for and long friendship with the governor, because that statement still drives me insane every time I read it. I cannot understand any suggestion that law enforcement officers, whose job is keeping communities safe, are somehow unduly burdened by the responsibility of determining whether a suspect might need to be handed over to immigration officials. Every cop I have ever asked rejects the notion that this law would somehow impede an officer from completing his other vital duties. Examine Arizona’s recent history. There has been no broad outcry from the state’s police officers to ease the rigors of SB 1070, and the bottom line is the decreased influx of illegal immigrants to the state. This law has worked.
So will Texas ever adopt Arizona’s hands-on approach, which has authorized local law enforcement to complement, not supersede, federal law in the laudable goal of finding those who have entered the nation, and the state, illegally?
Perry will leave the governor’s office in January 2015. His likely successor, Attorney General Greg Abbott, joined the court battle to thwart the Obama administration’s attack on the Arizona law. But it is one thing to support a state’s right to do something; it is quite another to emulate it.
What could spur a future Texas governor to do more than simply scold the feds about lax border enforcement? How about a voter base that demands it? The Arizona immigration initiative was always popular with the state’s conservative GOP base, but it gave moderates the willies and positively repelled Hispanics across the political spectrum. In an era when Republicans are threatened with extinction if they do not grow their Latino appeal, we are not likely to see a Texas governor (or a 2016 presidential candidate, for that matter) risk alienating Hispanic voters with intrepid experiments aimed at identifying and dealing with illegal immigrants who are already here.
But are soft status quo immigration policies the only way to attract Hispanic voters, many of whom should be pre-wired to vote Republican because of their social conservatism and entrepreneurial spirit? As Latino voters play an increasing role in each passing election, the Texas experience has lessons for 2014, 2016, and beyond.
Editor’s Note: This piece is excerpted from Texas radio talk show host Mark Davis’ new book, Lone Star America: How Texas Can Save Our Country. Reprinted by permission of Regnery.