The Immigration Dinner Party

What better place for strong conversation than over a meal? We gathered up lawmakers on both sides of the hottest debate going—plus a couple of experts—to break bread, argue, and see if any consensus could be reached by the time the dessert tray rolled around.

November 2010By Comments

Illustration by Steve Brodner


Rafael Anchía is a three-term Democratic state representative from West Dallas. He is an attorney specializing in public and corporate finance with the law firm of Haynes and Boone.

Leo Berman is a six-term Republican state representative from Tyler. He is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.

Richard Land has, since 1988, been the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is from Houston.

Steve Murdock is the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and the former state demographer of Texas. He is a professor of sociology at Rice University.

Debbie Riddle is a four-term Republican state representative from North Harris County. She is a horse breeder.

Leticia Van de Putte is a five-term Democratic state senator from San Antonio and the former president of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. She is a pharmacist.

I. Appetizers

[As the food arrives, the guests discuss their grandkids.]

RIDDLE: Well, we just had our tenth grandbaby, and we’ve got them all right around us. I feel like the old woman who lived in the shoe.

BERMAN: You’ve got three more grandkids than I do, but I’ve got three great-grandsons.

VAN DE PUTTE: I always thought that grandparents were goofy, until I became one.

RIDDLE: And, you know, with each grandbaby you just get more obnoxious.

LAND: I was pretty much that way with my kids. My wife was praying that we would have another child before I totally ruined our eldest daughter. My name for her is Princess Jennifer Rebekah Sweetheart Supergirl. She wanted a tiara for her fifth birthday.

RIDDLE: Did she get one?

LAND: She did.

BERMAN: I’ve gone through three tiaras.

RIDDLE: I feel very lucky. All of our children live very close. One’s five minutes around the corner one way; the other’s five minutes around the corner the other way. And my mother lives just a few houses down.

VAN DE PUTTE: I hate to tell you this, Debbie, but you’re Hispanic.

RIDDLE: I think you’re right. [laughter]

JAKE SILVERSTEIN, EDITOR, Texas Monthly: We’re here tonight to talk about illegal immigration, immigration reform, and border security. And, Representative Berman, I thought we’d begin with you. We know that right now there are anywhere from 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country and somewhere around 1.4 million in the state of Texas. So here’s a simple question to get us started: How serious a challenge do we face from that population?

BERMAN: I want to disagree with the numbers you have. The numbers that I see are that we have no less than twenty million illegal aliens in the United States today and two and a half million in Texas. They come here because we’ve done absolutely nothing, zero, about illegal aliens in Texas. In 2006 the Lone Star Foundation did a comprehensive study that said we’re spending $5 billion a year to take care of illegal aliens in Texas. Incarceration alone is, like, $42 million. Plus, the doctors will tell you that we’re treating illegal aliens for a number of diseases, many that we normally don’t even treat anymore because we’ve had drugs to wipe them out. And children of illegal aliens make up about 15 percent of every school district—that’s a rough average across the 1,200 districts. So if you take 15 percent of the total bond packages that schools are trying to pass in Texas to build new school buildings, 15 percent of those buildings are for the children of illegal immigrants, who are not paying property taxes.

MURDOCK: Let me say a little bit about the numbers, because that’s what I do for a living. First of all, all of the groups that I know—this includes left and right—that have done their academic research on this would argue that the number is between 10 and 12 million, not 20. Whether you talk about Homeland Security or the Pew Hispanic Center or the Center for Immigration Reform, all of those are in that ballpark for the country and all of them are somewhere between 1.4 and 1.7 million for Texas, and nearly all of them, frankly, agree that since 2007 there’s been either a decline in the numbers or at least stability.

LAND: Is that nationally, statewide, or both?

MURDOCK: Both. Now, to look at the impact of immigrants, you basically have to separate it by level. The reality is that most immigrants are employed by large employers, and they do pay Social Security. They do pay income tax. It’s taken off their checks just like it’s taken off mine. If someone has a false Social Security card and pays Social Security, Social Security doesn’t say, “Oh, I need to find out who this is and send it back.” They keep that money, and some of us who are getting older may appreciate having that money someday in the Social Security trust fund. One of the last few times Alan Greenspan appeared before Congress, he was asked what would help Social Security, and the second thing he mentioned was more immigration, because, he said, immigrants are paying in and not taking out. So if you look at that, they’re a net positive at the national level. At the state level most studies suggest that it’s about a wash. At the local level they may be somewhat negative because of education costs and health costs, which are all locally incurred.

ANCHÍA: The numbers my friend and colleague Representative Berman alludes to are numbers that I’ve not seen in official studies, so let’s look at a study from 2006 from then Republican comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. She did a comprehensive study, not just on the cost side but the benefit side. I’ll use back-of-the-napkin round numbers, but the state benefit in terms of revenue was about $450 million. Again, these are round numbers. The local impact cost was about $950 million, leaving about a $500 million delta between cost and benefit, state and local. Then she went a step further and looked at the economic value of our immigrants in Texas, and she came up with what I think was a pretty conservative figure of $17.7 billion of economic value. I’m a corporate finance lawyer by trade, and I represent some of the most sophisticated financial professionals and clients in the state. If I ever offered the opportunity to them to invest $500 million to receive a $17.7 billion return, they would take that deal all day long.

BERMAN: Well, the biggest problem in my area, in East Texas, is the fact that illegal aliens are going into the wrecker business, and they’re undercutting the people in my district by half. And so those people can’t put new people to work because they’re not making any money. I received a note from my maid that said, “Mr. Berman, my income from last year to support my two daughters is half of what it used to be because I’m being undercut by illegal aliens who are actually cleaning houses at far more capacity than I can possibly do, so I’m being cut out of a lot of jobs myself.”

VAN DE PUTTE: I would agree that there are costs. But even if we take Leo’s number of two and a half million, that means, what, a tenth of our population? My leadership in this state can’t have it both ways. They can’t beat their chests and yell out loud that we’ve got the strongest economy in the country and then say we have an immigration problem. The response of rational people should be, If you’re here to work, if you’re here to contribute, bring it on. And if you’re here to sell my daughter drugs, then you’re going to be held accountable, regardless of your status.

RIDDLE: Yes, the people in my district are very concerned about that. Illegal immigration is probably the number one priority for people in my district. They’ve stopped asking for border security—they’re demanding border security. Let me share with you some numbers. In Houston, since 2004, we have had a 71 percent increase in the number of gangs and a 250 percent increase in gang-related crimes. This is all connected with the drug cartels. These gangs are incredibly sophisticated, they have the automatic weapons, they have night-vision goggles, and they have the chase cars. The drug cartels have a $25-billion-a-year cash profit. They are going to do whatever it takes, and the crimes are serious. We live in a post-9/11 world. It is now altogether possible to put a dirty bomb in a suitcase and walk across the border and go into downtown Houston, detonate it, and kill a million people. I have asked folks, “Do you lock your doors at night when you go to bed?” And I bet everyone around this table would say yes. The reason you lock your doors at night is to make sure that you have no intruders. To make sure that your family is safe. To make sure that your home is secure. The people of this state and the people of this nation deserve to go to bed at night knowing that our border is safe and that we’re not just letting a criminal element come over for whatever reason. We’re either a nation of laws or we’re not. We either have a border or we don’t.

II. Entrées

SILVERSTEIN: Dr. Land, let’s turn to the question of reform. Most of your work on this issue has been at the federal level, and as we know, that’s where the big fixes are. In your view, what are the next steps?

LAND: This issue has reached a critical mass of urgency. I think it’s rending the social fabric of the nation. And the support for the Arizona law in other states is indicative of that. It’s been fifty years since we’ve had an administration that seriously enforced the border or internal immigration laws. Let’s be honest, we’ve had two signs up at the border for the past thirty years. One says “No trespassing” and the other one says “Help wanted.” And we have not enforced our laws internally. We’ve had people who have been here twenty years or more. And they have worked here, they have married citizens, they have produced citizens, and their assimilation has been retarded by a lot of lousy immigration laws. If they had been able to be documented, they wouldn’t have been as exploited, they wouldn’t have been as fearful of the law, they would have already been assimilating. I don’t think that the language issue is an issue. Most Hispanics understand that if they want to assimilate, they need to learn English. I grew up in Houston. Twenty-five or so kids in my high school were Hispanic, and a lot of them were in Spanish class with me, trying to learn Spanish. We’ve made this problem worse. It’s been greatly exacerbated by the fact that we haven’t had a federal administration that has seriously enforced the immigration laws since Eisenhower.

RIDDLE: Republican or Democrat.

LAND: That’s right. So I don’t think we can secure the southern border now without having immigration reform that says, number one, Beyond a certain date, if you want to have a job in the United States, you have to have a guest-worker card that is biometric and tamperproof. And if you’re an American citizen, you have to have a Social Security card that has been reissued with your thumbprint on it. If they can’t get a job once they get here, they’re not going to come. That makes the border secure. And then I would argue that we need to have a six-month period under which people who are undocumented can come forward; undergo a background check; agree to get one of these guest-worker cards; pay fines; agree to learn to read, write, and speak En-glish; pass a test saying that they’ve done so; and go to the back of the line, behind those who have been trying to come here legally. I think that that’d probably take ten years. What I’m arguing for is a grand compromise that would pass one piece of legislation, but it would be implemented sequentially, not simultaneously.

SILVERSTEIN: And securing the border comes first?

LAND: The government would have to have certain agreed-upon metrics for determining that the border is secure, and then Congress would have to certify that they have been met. Then it would trigger the second part.

SILVERSTEIN: Which says what?

LAND: You pass a law that says that anyone who employs anyone who does not have one of those biometric cards goes to jail for a year. I was on the Council on Foreign Relations task force, and we estimated, based on the studies we saw, that this would increase the wages at the lower tier of the economy by about 10 percent. Which is a big increase for those folks. Now, the other thing we discovered when we did this task force was that only about 70 percent of undocumented people want to stay here permanently. If we had a real guest-worker program, with a border that actually worked, they would come here, make money, and then go back and start a garage in Monterrey.

ANCHÍA: But if they did stay in the program, they could get full legal status?

LAND: Yes. If you don’t break the law.

BERMAN: Now, Richard, what does “full legal status” mean? Does it mean amnesty with a pathway to citizenship?

LAND: No one’s talking about amnesty. Amnesty is what Jimmy Carter gave those who avoided service during the Vietnam War. I’m talking about a fine, and I’m talking about a background check, and I’m talking about learning to read, write, and speak English. I’m talking about going to the back of the line, where they would pay the penalty of having to wait behind those who are trying to come here legally.

RIDDLE: There are situations that I think we all have in our districts where we have someone who’s 87 years old who came here illegally but she’s been here. There’s no one with a lick of sense who would send that 87-year-old woman back or make her go through a great deal of aggravation to become legal. An overall broad-sweeping amnesty I don’t think can work, nor would I think the American people would allow it, but there are situations at the opposite end of the spectrum, like having a young person who was brought over here as an infant and has grown up in America and is American and may not even know the language of Mexico or any other country.

ANCHÍA: Canada.

RIDDLE: But we’ve got to look at the crime, the gangs, the drug cartels, the human smuggling, everything that is coming across our border. It’s hitting Texas really hard.

SILVERSTEIN: Leo, what do you disagree with in that version of comprehensive reform?

BERMAN: Well, I’d like to make several comments about what Richard just said. I’m a first-generation American. I’ve been here for 75 years. My parents came from Europe, through Ellis Island. I am totally supportive of legal immigration into the United States. But one problem that I see happening in the United States right now is the fact that we are denigrating our citizenship. We’re giving citizenships to children of individuals who are committing a crime against the United States, children who were born of illegal people here in the United States. I would like to see that stopped.

LAND: I would agree that we need to stop it, but the way to stop it is not to change the Fourteenth Amendment.

BERMAN: The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868 to ensure that the children of former slaves were indeed U.S. citizens if born in the United States.

VAN DE PUTTE: I want to disagree. The Fourteenth Amendment says any person born or naturalized in the United States or subject to its jurisdiction is considered a citizen of the United States. The term “naturalized” wasn’t just for slaves.

BERMAN: After we pass a bill at the Legislature, we always ask each other questions to get legislative intent. Well, they get senatorial intent too. And in 1866 an author of the Fourteenth Amendment, Senator Jacob Howard, from Michigan, said on the floor of the United States Senate that this does not apply to foreigners, it does not apply to ambassadors, it does not apply to diplomats coming through the United States. Why would the Russian ambassador come to the United States and have a child and want that child to be a U.S. citizen?

LAND: Well, he would be disqualified because he’s not subject to the jurisdiction of the laws of the United States.

BERMAN: Neither are illegal aliens subject to the jurisdiction thereof.

LAND: Well, they are.

BERMAN: No, they’re not.

LAND: Sure they are.

BERMAN: Ask yourself three questions. If they’re subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, can they be called to jury duty? Can they vote? Does an eighteen-year-old alien, whether legal or illegal—

ANCHÍA: But legal permanent residents can’t do those three things, and they’re subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. If the litmus test is jury duty, legal permanent residents aren’t called to jury duty, and neither are seventeen-year-olds, right?

BERMAN: I’m talking about illegal aliens. I’m talking about aliens here on a visa. I served in the military for 22 years. I was in combat for 2 years, and I’ve always valued my citizenship more than anything else that I’ve got. And we’re making a mockery of citizenship when we give citizenship to the children of parents who are violating our law at the time and when we give citizenship to people who can buy it for $5,000.

LAND: But that would be like if the president of the United States sent me a notice and it said, “You know, we have been tracking your speeding habits on the interstate for the past twenty-six years. And we’ve documented every time you’ve exceeded the speed limit. And now we’re going to send you a ticket for every time you broke the speed limit for the last twenty-six years. And we’re going to confiscate your car.” Well, I think that’s unfair. For 26 years we have ignored our own laws. And I think it’s unfair to now, all of the sudden, say we’re going to enforce those laws retroactively.

RIDDLE: I don’t think he’s talking about retroactively.

BERMAN: I’m not talking about retroactive. It’s not retroactive at all.

LAND: Anyway, if we have a comprehensive immigration reform law that worked, this would be a moot point.


LAND: Because we wouldn’t have undocumented people working here and having babies here. They would all be documented.

BERMAN: Well, what about the legal ones who are buying it for $5,000?

ANCHÍA: That’s an enforcement issue. That’s training your port-of-entry guards that under current law they have the discretion to turn away pregnant women at any port of entry on a visa basis.

MURDOCK: Can I suggest something? Before we decide that this is a problem, let’s find out how many people it really is.

BERMAN: The number that I got is 300,000 a year. Total illegal and tourist, 300,000 a year. And 63,000 illegal citizenships here in Texas.

ANCHÍA: You’re incorrect on that, actually. Because that 63,000 figure, just so everybody is reporting it correctly, that was an article done by the Dallas Morning News, and it only bears out that there are 63,000 children born to noncitizens. They could be visa holders, legal permanent residents—both of whom are here legally— or undocumented.

MURDOCK: Most of that 300,000 comes from people who have lived here many years and have babies like everybody does at certain life stages. They came here to work, and they got involved in life.

RIDDLE: So you’re saying that it’s just a total myth that people cross our borders to have a baby?

MURDOCK: I’m saying that the numbers get inflated.

RIDDLE: I’m not talking about numbers. Do you think that there is a significant—you’re a statistician. I’m not asking for—

MURDOCK: Yeah, I can answer that. It is not a significant number, given the population and given the total births in the United States.

RIDDLE: What about Texas?

MURDOCK: For Texas too. Now, are there large numbers from people who are not technically legal? Yes. But that’s different from saying people are just coming over here to give birth.

BERMAN: I’m going to have to challenge that also, because at Parkland Hospital, in Dallas, 70 percent of the births are to illegal aliens.

ANCHÍA: No, to noncitizens.

BERMAN: But where do they come from, Rafael?

VAN DE PUTTE: They’ve been here, Leo. They’ve been here since they were two years old. They’ve gone to school, and now they’re getting married and stuff, but they’ve been here.

BERMAN: Are they legal or illegal?

ANCHÍA: They’re mixed. There’s some who are here on visas, some who are legal permanent residents, and there’s some who are undocumented.

VAN DE PUTTE: What you’re assuming is that everybody who’s a noncitizen is not legal, and that’s absolutely false.

BERMAN: I think I’m pretty close, really. I think I’m very close.


SILVERSTEIN: Let’s talk about the border and whether it can be secured, since that’s clearly a critical part of any reform package.

RIDDLE: Well, I asked Colonel [Steve] McCraw, the director of the Department of Public Safety, “Is our border secure?” He said, “Absolutely not.” So I asked, “Can it be secured?” And he said yes. Privately I asked him, “What is your definition of a secure border?” And the answer was that not one person cross our border that we’re not aware of. That not one person cross over illegally.

ANCHÍA: That’s a pretty high bar. If the discussion on comprehensive immigration reform can’t happen until your definition is met, then it will never happen.

RIDDLE: No, it has got to happen.

VAN DE PUTTE: Well, let me ask you something. I got to spend a couple days with Border Patrol in the Nogales area. And at the end of one day we went into the detention area, and they had almost five hundred people in cages. A lot were children and women and families. And then, over to one side, there was a cage with about twenty guys in there. And the border chief was talking to us, and what he said was basically, “Ladies, I can spend my five hundred agents trying to catch these people over here who want to take care of your kids. They want to work, they want to do your lawn, they want to put on a roof. Or I can use my manpower to catch these men who want to sell your daughters drugs. I can’t do both. And the policymakers have to set the priority.”

RIDDLE: I absolutely don’t disagree with you. But that doesn’t mean we should not secure the border. What you’re talking about is not checking criminal background, not checking—

VAN DE PUTTE: No, what I’m talking about is setting priorities. Unfortunately, our federal government has not set those priorities. They give equal weight to the sixteen-year-old who’s crossing who wants to clean somebody’s house and the guy who’s carrying kilos.

LAND: I don’t think a 100 percent seal is realistic, but we’ve got to substantially seal it. How do you do that? Well, I think we’re going to have to have more border agents, but once you have a way for people to come legally and you have a way to stop people from being employed illegally on this side of the border, then the pressure on the border slackens.

RIDDLE: And I think you’re absolutely right.

LAND: And then you go after the criminals. I have a couple of reasons for this sense of urgency. One is because I think the Arizona law and the response to it shows that we have reached a sort of critical mass of rending the social structure. Secondly, President [Felipe] Calderón may be the best president of Mexico the United States is ever going to have. We have a vested interest in him succeeding, because if he fails, I’m very fearful that we’re either going to have a drug lord running the country or we’re going to have someone like [Hugo] Chávez running the country, and that’s going to be very, very, very serious, because then we’re going to have refugees like we have with Cuba. And we’re not going to turn those folks away.

SILVERSTEIN: So let’s talk about the Arizona law. Obviously this looms over our discussion, not only SB 1070 but the Obama administration’s response to it.

LAND: I don’t support either one.

BERMAN: Neither one? Why don’t you support SB 1070?

LAND: I think it puts law enforcement officials in an untenable situation. And it’s going to let some bad actors get off, because they’re going to be arrested for legitimate reasons like drug trafficking and they’re going to claim they were racially profiled. The way to handle the Arizona law and the situation with Arizona is not by suing Arizona but by passing federal comprehensive regulation that makes the Arizona law irrelevant. Now, I understand why SB 1070 was passed. It was passed because Arizona was desperate.

SILVERSTEIN: Leo, you’ve indicated that you intend to introduce legislation similar to SB 1070 in the next session. Why do you think this legislation is good for Texas?

BERMAN: There’s three major parts of my bill. The first part of the bill has to do with local law enforcement dealing directly with illegal aliens in the United States. But I struck two sentences out of the first part of the Arizona bill, which will do away with profiling completely. The bill that I’m introducing has nothing to do with profiling. The second part outlaws sanctuary cities. The third part requires all employers to use the E-Verify system.

SILVERSTEIN: How does your language avoid profiling?

BERMAN: I took out the sentences in the first part of the bill that give the local law enforcement discretion. They ask everybody. Everybody they stop is asked the same thing.

VAN DE PUTTE: What about papers? Leo, would you have everyone carry papers?

BERMAN: No, a driver’s license, a registration of the car, an insurance policy. You have to show that you’re a U.S. citizen.

ANCHÍA: How do you prove that?

BERMAN: Driver’s license.

ANCHÍA: That doesn’t prove that. Legal permanent residents, visa holders—all have driver’s licenses.

BERMAN: But they’re legally in the United States.

ANCHÍA: What if they speak Spanish? Is that probable cause?


VAN DE PUTTE: What really worried me was, in preparation for the Arizona law, we had Catholic priests who were telling their parishioners, “Take your saints off of your car. Take the Lady of Guadalupe off. Take off all religious stuff. Do not wear a crucifix.”

BERMAN: I’m not filing that bill, Leticia.

VAN DE PUTTE: But what I’m telling you is, when folks think about Arizona, maybe they’re not thinking about what has been struck down. I’ve got to tell you, part of me is very excited there is an Arizona law, because I don’t think our federal government would have even begun the discussion unless they thought there’d be fifty different Arizona state laws. And on the other side, I really think that there are those in my Democratic party who just love every time you [to Berman] open your mouth or you [to Riddle] open your mouth.

BERMAN: Why? Because we’re not going to get the Latino votes? That’s what you’re telling me? I wish I could show you the stack of letters that I got concerning not only that bill but English as the official language of Texas and the number of Hispanics who have written to me saying, “Thank you for doing this.” I’ve gotten hundreds of letters from Hispanics. They’re not all against this.

SILVERSTEIN: Richard, let me ask you about the role of faith in this debate. How does the Southern Baptist Convention get to its position on immigration reform?

LAND: My role is to call Southern Baptists to be where I believe Southern Baptists ought to be based on our understanding of Christianity, so that’s what I’ve been trying to do. During the 2006 immigration debate, Southern Baptists came together for our annual meeting, and we overwhelmingly passed a resolution that called for enforcing the border first and called for a fair and just path to legal status for those who were here in an undocumented sense.

RIDDLE: And I think my pastor is supporting you, right?

LAND: He is, and my position has helped him to come to an understanding, because he’s got, what, 1,500 Hispanics in his church? To me it’s a moral issue. I had the privilege to lead the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995 to apologize for having supported slavery and racism. We had passed twenty-something resolutions condemning racism since 1946, but we’d never apologized and we’d never taken personal responsibility, and when we did that, it lanced the boil. At the time, there were 335,000 African American Southern Baptists. Today there are a million. So that’s a 300 percent increase in fifteen years. And I did ask the question at our annual convention this summer in Orlando. I said, “How much more successful would we have been at evangelizing African Americans had we adopted the integrationist stance in the sixties that my commission asked us to do at the time?” I don’t want to have to come back in fifteen years and apologize to Hispanics for having supported anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric.

BERMAN: Anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric? Is that what we’re supporting, anti-Hispanic—

LAND: I didn’t say you were. I’m talking about what’s happening at the national level. I’m talking about what’s happening in the Congress.

BERMAN: Are we a nation of laws or are we not a nation of laws?

LAND: Well, we’ve been a nation that has ignored our laws.

BERMAN: When I started in office, I took the same oath that everyone else does, to preserve and protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.

LAND: We have to bear some responsibility, as a nation, for having allowed our government to ignore our laws for so many years and the consequences that come with that.

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