Texas GOP Divided on Immigration Law

Texas state legislators are going up against party supporters over the issue of illegal immigrants. Republicans are sponsoring legislation that would punish illegal workers and their families, but big businesses say they need the workers.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

Think of this, get sick be held prisoner for it - if you've got a highly drug resistant form of tuberculosis.

ADAMS: But first to Texas, where the politics of immigration are splitting the Republican Party. State lawmakers from the GOP have proposed a flurry of bills designed to sanction illegal aliens and their children. But last week a business coalition began running television ads asserting that Texas needs workers.

From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN: To say that illegal immigration has become a very important issue to a large cross section of the Republican Party is to speak the obvious. Doesn't matter if you're in Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, it's true in dozens of states across the country.

For the last eight years, Republican politicians in Texas have been restrained in their intentions toward illegal immigrants in difference to the president's need for Hispanic votes. But George Bush isn't going to be running for president anymore, and Republican legislators in Texas are now unbound.

Representative LEO BERMEN (Republican, Tyler, Texas): I think we know there are over 20 million illegal aliens in the United States, and if that doesn't shock you, what about this? They brought with them, across the border, tuberculosis, leprosy, the plague, polio, malaria, Dange fever. It costs a lot of money to treat those diseases.

GOODWYN: Leo Berman is a state representative from Tyler in east Texas. Berman recently introduced a bill that would strip American citizenship from children of illegal aliens who were born in American. Another bill would impose a tax on money being sent south of the border. Still another would force children of illegal immigrants, even if they grew up going to Texas schools, to pay out-of-state tuition if they wanted to go to a state university.

But to Leo Berman's absolute outrage, last week the Republican chairman of the State Affairs Committee stopped every illegal immigration bill. And the day after that, a coalition of some of the biggest and most politically connected businesses in the state began running TV ads that were essentially an attack on the immigration bills.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: I build homes for a living, but if I'm going to build you a good, affordable home, I need workers.

Unidentified Woman: If you're going to depend on me for a clean hotel room ready when you check-in, I need workers.

Unidentified Man #3: Let's find a solution that includes comprehensive reform, border security, and work permits. Brought to you by Texas Employers for Immigration Reform.

GOODWYN: The coalition is a veritable who's who of the Texas construction, meat packing, hotel, and food industries. And many are major Republican contributors. The directory of coalition members is so broad, it's interesting to read down the list and see just how many employers want legislation that helps illegal immigrants get legal status.

Mr. BO PILGRIM (Pilgrim's Pride): Well, my name is Bow Pilgrim. I'm in the chicken business and have been for 60 years.

GOODWYN: Take Bo Pilgrim of Pilgrim's Pride, for example, the largest chicken producer in the world.

Mr. PILGRIM: Who's going to catch the chickens, you know? You have to bend your back to catch chickens.

GOODWYN: The most powerful advocates for a moderate approach to illegal immigration in Texas also constitute a significant part of the funding apparatus for the state's Republican Party. And these powerful, monied interests want illegal aliens to have a path to legal status, not get kicked out of the country.

Mr. PILGRIM: Legal status, yes, because it's got to be changed. As long as people believe that they're not needed and that we can just send them home, that won't work. That will crash the economy.

GOODWYN: Perhaps, no one is more in touch than their employers with the role legal and illegal immigrants play in the economy. Pilgrim says the TV ads are an attempt to change both the tone and the content of the political conversation about immigration.

But Ross Ramsey, the editor of Texas Weekly which covers Texas politics in fine detail, believe the ads have another purpose - to give moderate Republican legislators some political cover.

Mr. ROSS RAMSEY (Editor, Texas Weekly): I think it's, you know, there's a little bit of, hey, maybe you don't realize what an important part of this economy immigrants are. And you know what it means in Texas. If they raise the profile a little bit, that provides cover to a politician whose constituents may be really hot about this issue.

GOODWYN: It's said politics makes strange bedfellows. In Texas, the voices for moderation on illegal immigration are also some of the biggest money men for the Texas Republican Party. In one of the most conservative, Republican legislatures in the country, any bills that are designed to sanction or punish illegal aliens are - much to the frustration of their sponsors - not even going to get out of committee.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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