By JAMES PINKERTON
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Jan. 4, 2009
With more than a dozen bills on the issue already filed, immigration promises to be a hot topic during this year's state legislative session. And Houston lawmakers are sure to be key players on both sides.
The battle is part of a growing effort by state legislatures across the nation to tackle contentious issues related to immigration.
"It's definitely going to be an issue," said state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston.
But Gallegos said the proposed legislation, filed mostly by Republican lawmakers, will be scrutinized — and perhaps scrubbed — by Hispanic legislators to ensure that bills are not aimed only at Latino immigrants. The legislative session begins Jan. 13 in Austin.
"We are going to have to see what kind of wording is in these bills — that it's fair for everybody and not just targeting one ethnicity — which is what it looks like they're trying to do," Gallegos said.
Last year, 13 states passed laws related to employment of immigrants, and 16 states passed legislation relating to driver's license regulations governing illegal immigrants, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In all, 1,305 bills related to immigration were proposed last year, and 205 were enacted.
"The economy is the No. 1 issue affecting states, but immigration remains a hot-button topic debated in many legislatures across the country," said William T. Pound, the organization's executive director.
"Coincidentally, several states commissioned studies to investigate the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration, including state remedies to recover money owed to the state by the federal government," he said.
Louise Whiteford, president of Texans for Immigration Reform, based in Houston, said tough economic times are forcing state leaders to examine closely the costs of services provided to Texas' illegal population.
"The problem has become more intense with the cost of illegal immigration to the state being so high," Whiteford said. "With the economy tanking, people are going to object more to picking up the costs."
Last month, a state survey estimated Texas and local hospital districts spent an estimated $677 million to provide health care to illegal immigrants in the fiscal year that ended August 2007.
Texas' last legislative session in 2007 was expected to be roiled by immigration-related debates. But after an attorney general ruling noted the supremacy of the federal government's role in immigration enforcement, a number of bills addressing immigration were assigned to a single legislative committee and not brought up for discussion.
Historically, anti-immigrant measures have gained little traction in Texas, a state where cultural and commercial ties with Mexico and Latin America are close and long-standing.
Wider hearing predicted
This year, the bills will get a wider hearing, say a number of anti-illegal immigration activists and legislators.
"We believe it is the No. 1 issue in Texas and one that Texans want dealt with by this legislative session," said state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler.
Berman has filed a bill for the new session challenging the automatic citizenship conferred to those born in the U.S. and a bill to authorize an 8 percent fee on remittances sent to Mexico by undocumented workers.
He is also attempting to pass a law to repeal existing legislation granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented college students.
Berman said after legislatures in Arizona, Oklahoma and Tennessee passed laws barring employment of illegal immigrants, thousands of undocumented workers poured into Texas.
"Now, we have almost 2 million illegal aliens," Berman said.
"They are costing Texans $4 billion a year to support ... by providing them free public school, free health care, and we just happen to be incarcerating 25,000 of them in our state and county prison systems," he said.
Punishing cities, counties
Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick, whose district includes northwest Harris County, has filed two bills.
One would deny state grants to cities or counties that have "sanctuary" policies against full cooperation with immigration authorities.
"He believes it's going to be a big issue because the public has grown kind of weary of the total disregard for our border laws and for the billions of dollars in public services that go to people in this country illegally," said Court Koenning, Patrick's chief of staff.
Koenning said Patrick intends to introduce four immigration-related laws, including one that would remove the personal information of federal immigration agents from public databases.
"They've had a big problem with their agents being intimidated" by drug traffickers, Koenning said.
State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, has proposed a bill giving Texas law officers the authority to arrest persons for trespassing on private or public property. The proposed law essentially seeks to make the federal offense of unlawful presence in the U.S. a state trespassing charge.
Danger of racial profiling
Local immigration experts say legislators will have a better chance of getting a hearing on their bills if they don't apply to law enforcement.
Because of the complexity of immigration laws, untrained officers could mistakenly detain legal residents, resulting in discrimination suits filed against cities and counties, noted Houston immigration lawyer Lawrence Rushton.
"What I've seen recently is those local law officers who are inquiring about immigration status are doing a lot of racial profiling," Rushton said. "They are stopping Hispanics who happen to be passing through their jurisdictions without having any other reason to stop them."
Nestor Rodriguez, an immigration expert and professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin, believes a lot of the proposed legislation is simply posturing by conservative lawmakers.
"My sense is nothing dramatic will happen," Rodriguez said. "These (bills) seem to be more symbolic, and I think the legislative representatives are trying to impress their constituents."