The last time illegal immigration flared up as a national hot-button issue, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush made his intentions clear: Immigrant bashing would not be tolerated in his state. And he vowed to use his political clout to quash it elsewhere, too.
No angry demonstrations filled the streets of Texas cities, the way they did in California. Politicians offered no tough-on-immigration campaign rhetoric nor harsh proposals to deny state benefits to the children of illegal immigrants.
But Bush is long gone from Texas, and so is the notion that the state sharing the longest border with Mexico was somehow immune from the divisiveness. Instead, the president’s home state is gripped in the same anti-immigrant fervor spilling out across the country, making Texas an unfamiliar host to some of the harshest proposals in the nation.
The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch has become a national experiment in how far cities can go to punish and drive away illegal immigrants, with its proposal to criminalize the renting of apartments to illegal immigrants.
A bill filed in the Texas Legislature would cut off public assistance to children of illegal immigrants, including public health care and education. The measure parallels California’s bitterly won Proposition 187.
Bush lambasted Proposition 187 at the time, insisting that even children of illegal immigrants deserve an education.
Bush “didn’t think it was morally justifiable to punish the kid for a decision that he had no say in,” said West Texas state Rep. Pete Gallego, a Democrat.
Critics like Gallego say today’s legislation would not have stood a chance if Bush was still around.
“He would have said up front ‘don’t bother passing this legislation because if it ever gets to me, I’m going to veto it’,” Gallego said. Gov. Rick Perry has said he opposes the proposed ban on in-state tuition–after a re-election campaign in which he talked tough on border security.
Other anti-immigrant bills would tax money that is wired to Latin America, end a policy that grants in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants and authorize the state attorney general to sue the federal government for money Texas has spent dealing with illegal immigration.
Part of Bush’s approach to immigration policy stemmed from his respect for the Mexican culture, and the strong work ethic and family ties it fosters, said Vance McMahan, Bush’s policy director in the governor’s office.
“A big part of it is growing up in West Texas and understanding the culture of both Texas and Mexico and recognizing that the vast majority of Mexicans … want to come to the United States and … secure a better future for their families,” said Ray Sullivan, Bush’s press secretary in Texas.
After a federal welfare reform law cut off food stamps for all immigrants, Bush restored benefits for elderly and disabled legal immigrants in Texas.
“Food stamps are a federal program and a federal responsibility. The rules have changed unfairly and retroactively for those least able to help themselves,” Bush said in notes to his staff.
Now, with Congress intent on immigration reform, Bush pleaded with his own party to go easy on illegal immigrants.
“We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals,” Bush said in his State of the Union address. “We need to resolve the status of the immigrants that are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty.”