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.
The Immigration Dinner Party
Illustration by Steve Brodner

THE GUESTS

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

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