AUSTIN, Texas — With nearly 2 million illegal immigrants and a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, Texas has more at stake than most states in the renewed push to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
Yet so far, Gov. Rick Perry and Republicans who control the Legislature have been sitting this debate out.
They’re not resurrecting dozens of contentious immigration bills that roiled the statehouse in 2011. They’re not making the rounds on TV and radio to talk about President Barack Obama’s plan for legalizing immigrants. They’re not even saying the word “immigration.”
When Perry delivered his State of the State recently — his first since his failed presidential run — glaringly absent in the 37-minute speech was any mention of the issue at all.
The silence speaks to the sudden political shift in immigration since last fall’s presidential election, in which Hispanics voted Democratic by a nearly 3-to-1 margin and created a powerful incentive for Republicans to change their approach to this growing ethnic group.
In Congress, Republicans have softened their opposition to accommodating immigrants, and a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators unveiled a bill framework that includes a pathway to citizenship for those already in the U.S. so long as border security is beefed up.
But in Texas, the party has been left speechless in the Capitol. GOP leaders find themselves caught between traditional supporters, who feel swamped by illegal immigrants and want tough action, and a surging Hispanic population. Minorities accounted for nearly nine out of every 10 new Texas residents in the past decade, and the demographic shift could soon transform the politics in a state where Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since 1994.
“There’s not nearly as much energy around it as there was,” says Republican state Rep. John Zerwas, acknowledging the collapse of hard-line immigration proposals such as his to require state agencies to compile the costs related to illegal immigrants. “I think you’re seeing that at the national level, and probably a good bit of that is trickling down to the state level.”
Similar pivots are under way in other Republican statehouses, but perhaps nowhere is the change more evident than in Texas because of how much rhetoric the issue has traditionally received here.
Texas Republicans regularly used illegal immigration as a campaign cudgel against Democrats like Obama and as a rallying point for fed-up conservatives while trying to reach out to legal Hispanic residents as the party best aligned with their values.
Only two years ago in his State of the State address, Perry called for punishing “sanctuary cities” that bar police officers from asking detainees about their immigration status.
There’s no talk of such measures now.
“You want an answer? That tried and that failed,” said Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri. “Responsible leadership is now focusing on things that have a chance to get passed.”
Immigration isn’t an easy subject to ignore in Texas, though.
About 16 percent of the illegal immigrants in the United States live in the state, according to a Department of Homeland Security report in 2012, and immigration leaves an outsize footprint on the state’s infrastructure.
When a district judge ruled this week that Texas’ system for paying for public schools was unconstitutional, he sided with arguments that state funding hasn’t kept pace with rising numbers of students needing extra instruction to learn English. The ruling may force the Legislature to overhaul school finance by the summer.
So red-hot was immigration for Texas Republicans in the last legislative session that state Rep. Debbie Riddle camped outside the clerk’s office to make sure her bills targeting illegal immigrants were filed first. About 50 bills related to immigration were filed in all. This time, Riddle, who once famously warned of immigrant mothers in the U.S. giving birth to “terror babies” who would grow up to attack the country as unsuspecting citizens, has not submitted any immigration proposals.
Perry talked tough about illegal immigration in his race for president, making his demand for more federal “boots on the ground” on the border all but a campaign slogan. But other Republican candidates talked even tougher. Perry wound up being criticized for his support of a 2001 state law that allowed tuition breaks for the children of illegals.
State demographers have predicted that Hispanics will make up a plurality of Texans by 2020, and then become the majority between 10 and 20 years later. In the last governor’s race, the Republican nominee, Perry, won less than 40 of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls.
Last summer, the Texas GOP softened on immigration at the party’s annual convention, acknowledging that mass deportation isn’t possible and calling for common ground. Six months later, some far-right Republicans are seething that immigration has dropped off the party’s radar.
“Establishment Republicans are trying to brand a different message,” said Maria Martinez, executive director of the Immigration and Reform Coalition of Texas that backed “sanctuary city” proposals in 2011.
Texas could still wind up with a say on the new immigration plan. The Senate immigration plan would create a commission of lawmakers and border-state community leaders to assess when adequate border security measures have been completed.
Freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, who previously served in the Texas House, doubts his home state would let that happen.
“I don’t think that Rick Perry and (Arizona Gov.) Jan Brewer will ever say the border is secure,” Castro said. With conservatives angry about the issue, “they know they risk a primary challenge if they come out and say the border is secure.”