One morning in early September, I drove through Tyler with state representative Leo Berman looking for undocumented immigrants. About half a mile east of downtown, we found a group of perhaps ten or twelve men sitting under a small hackberry on a grassy hillside in front of a doughnut shop. “Here’s the illegals right here,” Berman said. “If you’d been here about three hours ago”—when contractors and foremen cruised by in their pickups, searching for day laborers—“you’d have seen a mass of people.” These few stragglers in blue jeans and ball caps were the overlooked or unlucky, or maybe just the late sleepers. In recent years this corner has become the hub of a growing community of immigrants living in the northeast part of town. Berman pointed out the bright-orange facade of La Michoacana Meat Market across the street and a newly opened Mexican bakery nearby. “Michoacana” refers to a person or thing from Michoacán, a state in southwestern Mexico. But in Texas, where the chain now has more than one hundred stores, it might as well mean “immigrants live here,” since the company chooses its locations using census data to find pockets of Spanish speakers. Tyler, with a population of about 100,000 residents, got its store about eight years ago.
Berman, a 75-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who grew up in New York and has represented Tyler for twelve years, said his constituents are fed up. “If you take away the economy, it’s the number one issue,” he said. Berman’s list of the evils of illegal immigration—the burden on taxpayers, the loss of jobs, and the threat of disease, crime, and drugs—will be familiar to anyone who has heard the Republican talking points on the failure of the Obama administration to secure our southern border. Less familiar is his take on who is standing in the way of the kind of tough response conservatives crave. “What people don’t understand is that it’s not just Democrats,” he told me. “It’s Republicans too.” Chief among them, according to Berman, is Speaker of the House Joe Straus. Berman blames Straus, who is from San Antonio, for bottling up the dozen or so immigration bills he filed last session, which would have, among other things, prevented the children of undocumented immigrants from obtaining birth certificates, made it a state crime to transport or conceal an undocumented immigrant, and required undocumented immigrants to live in so-called sanctuary cities—a thumb in the eye to city councils that forbid discrimination based on the immigration status of their residents. Not one of the proposals was even allowed a vote on the House floor. Though Straus denies it, Berman is convinced that he made a deal with House Democrats who supported him for Speaker: No immigration bills would see the light of day. “He sold us out,” he said. Berman, whose outspokenness on immigration has made him a champion of tea party conservatives, has announced his own candidacy for Speaker for the session that begins in January.
Even if House conservatives do manage to oust Straus, however, that won’t alter the deeper and more fundamental problem that immigration reform poses for the Republican party in Texas. Many of the party’s biggest funders, like Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, are captains of industries that employ huge numbers of recent immigrants, some with papers and some without. More than 40 percent of the roughly one million construction workers in Texas are immigrants from Latin America, so it stands to reason that Perry Homes, which builds thousands of houses a year in subdivisions across the state, is one of the largest employers of foreign-born workers in Texas. Perry is also the single biggest donor to Republican politicians and causes in Texas, including $380,000 to Governor Rick Perry and $335,000 to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst during the 2006 general election. Equally influential in Republican circles are prominent homebuilders David Weekley and his brother Richard, a founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of the most active PACs in state politics for the past ten years. Then there is Bo Pilgrim, whose chicken-processing empire is built in large part on foreign-born workers as well. Republican candidates for statewide office in Texas don’t launch campaigns without first making a visit to these four men, and no immigration bill ever escapes the attention of their lobbyists in Austin.
“I don’t care what Bob Perry or Bo Pilgrim has to say,” Berman said. “My constituents sent me to Austin to do the right thing.” What his constituents want, Berman says, is something that resembles Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, which directs local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, a duty generally reserved for federal immigration agents. That worries the powers that be in the Republican party. It’s not just the disruption that a major fight over immigration would mean for the next session of the Legislature, where battles over budget cuts and redistricting are already looming. It’s also the prospect of the state’s biggest Republican donors squaring off against the party’s grass roots.
“That kind of issue is so disruptive to so many people on so many levels,” said Bill Miller, who is a principal at HillCo Partners, one of the most influential lobbying firms in the state and a frequent conduit for Bob Perry’s political donations. “It’s just not a good thing, and the few people who believe it is don’t have anyone’s interests at heart except their own.”
But the fight is going to happen, and it will get ugly, especially if an Arizona-style bill comes to the floor of the Senate, where voting rules have traditionally made it easy to quietly kill controversial bills. In late July, Houston senator Dan Patrick created a stir when he all but promised, in the course of a televised debate with Democratic senator Mario Gallegos, that the Republicans would override the Senate’s hallowed two-thirds voting rule—which requires two thirds of the members of that chamber to