TX: GOP splinters over immigration at party convention

Posted on: June 15th, 2010 by Patrick Caldwell 2 Comments

Rick PerryThe Texas Republican convention was meant to bring the state’s GOP together to focus on the November elections. On Friday, two former political opponents, Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, reconciled after a heated gubernatorial primary. And Perry’s speech later in the day accepting his party’s nomination focused on the attacking his Democratic opponent Bill White, a topic on which all those at the Dallas Convention Center could agree. But while all the big speeches of the convention stressed the unity of the party, behind the scenes delegates were splintering over one topic: immigration.

“Everything is Bigger in Texas,” and for the Texas GOP, that has often meant outflanking the rest of the country to the right. It would be natural to assume that state Republicans are considering anti-immigration policies as stringent as Arizona’s infamous law. But Perry has opposed similar legislation for Texas, and on Friday he announced a goal of winning 50 percent of the Latino vote in November.

Perry’s moderation on stringent immigration laws — at least relative to other segments of the GOP — was matched by a third of a committee charged with creating the party’s platform during the convention. The Texas Observer’s Abby Rapoport reported from the convention:

Friday, after he got a standing ovation for emphasizing the need to “secure our borders,” Rick Perry announced he intended to get 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in November. Ten hours later, the committee charged with writing the party platform had a bit of a mess on their hands: 11 of its 32 members supported new, less stringent language on immigration. (You might need to read that twice.)

On Saturday, when the committee submitted its proposed platform for the rest of the convention delegates to approve, there was a bit of a surprise: Those 11 members filed a minority report—included in the delegates’ packets without actually being in the platform—that suggested new language. “We have never supported and oppose a policy of mass deportation,” their alternative language read. “We support a realistic solution which permanently secures our borders and humanely resolves the legal status of illegal immigrants. We recognize that many illegal immigrants were brought to this country as minors.”

The minority report didn’t survive long enough to receive a vote from the full-party convention, where rhetoric turned from at least appearing friendly to the state’s Hispanic population — approximately 36 percent of the state total in 2008, and growing — to a decidedly anti-immigrant tone:

Delegates voted to include a plank advocating for a state law that would bar undocumented immigrants from “intentionally or knowingly” living in Texas. Similar to Arizona’s strict law that has sparked nationwide debate, the proposal would require local police to verify U.S. residency when making arrests.

The more moderate wing of the GOP pushed the party to include at least one pathway to citizenship: A proposal was presented to allow illegal immigrants to serve in the military, thus allowing for eventual citizenship. But delegates voted to oppose any possible path for people currently residing in the country illegally.

As the Observer’s Bob Moser wrote, discussing the divide between the far right wing of Texas’ GOP and the standard conservative wing:

There’s the mere right faction. The smarties on this side understand that the party has to reach out to non-Anglos to remain competitive long-term. Which means doing little things like working a line into the party platform that, amidst a bunch of red-meat anti-immigrant rhetoric, allows that those people can join the U.S. military if they’ve met certain requirements.

If the Republicans had passed the plank, they’d have allowed illegal immigrants one little thing. But they couldn’t do that one little thing. Not even a thing that would benefit the U.S. military. As one delegate bellowed on Saturday evening as the platform debate over whether to call for term limits for state executive-committee members (hardly a blood-curdling matter) turned loud and occasionally hostile: “Are we a party of principle or a party of power?”

Of course, the inclusion of these policies in the party platform does not directly affect state laws. But the GOP currently holds the governorship and majorities in both state houses, and the message sent by the party base should play a role in the next legislative session.

Perry is not alone in opposition to implementing Arizona-style legislation. Where it is easy for Republican activists to call for the strictest possible measures, those actually charged with governing and enforcing such policies have generally had to moderate their views relative to the rest of their party. Republican governors throughout the Southwest and elsewhere have resisted their base and opposed introducing similar bills for the states they govern. The list of opponents include some GOPers with independent streaks (California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida’s newly independent Senate candidate, Gov. Charlie Crist) but also conservative stalwarts like Perry, including Utah’s Gary Herbert.

What remains to be seen is whether these politicians’ comity in an election year survives beyond November, when the likely gains Republicans will achieve nationally turn to more control over policy.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/sj_sanders; eschipul)

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