‘They Are All My People’
For representatives Ana Hernandez and Gene Wu, Wednesday’s immigration debate in the House was personal.
There are 1.4 million undocumented immigrants currently living in Texas, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, and the vast majority—1.1 million of them—are from Mexico. This institute chart shows the areas in which Mexican immigrants are concentrated. The institute also estimates that there are 509,000 unauthorized families in Texas with at least one child who is a U.S. citizen.
A bill that the Texas House gave preliminary approval to early this morning could profoundly affect the lives of these 1.4 million Texas residents. The measure, Senate Bill 4, supposedly would end “sanctuary cities” by fining those cities and counties that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The legislation is preemptive—the bill sponsor, Fort Worth Republican Charlie Geren, admitted that at present there are no local governments not honoring federal immigration detainers on jail inmates.
In the House debate, some lawmakers said the bill contains provisions that could be used to harass immigrants and lead to deportations that would split up families. Many said the legislation is racist and is motivated only by a desire to look tough on immigrants in a Republican primary.
As the debate went into the evening, one of the tea party legislators, Tyler Republican Matt Schaefer, got the House to adopt an amendment by an 81-64 vote to allow law enforcement officers to demand proof of citizenship any time they stop an individual, making the bill closer to the one that passed the Senate. Geren had negotiated the bill to only allow law enforcement to question people about their immigration status when actually under arrest for a crime.
Some Democrats said that allowing this kind of stop-and-question would lead to racial profiling and the possibility of deportation for jaywalking or a broken taillight. Representative Mary Gonzalez, an El Paso Democrat, burst into tears as she told the House that anyone who voted for the Schaefer amendment no longer was her friend.
The language makes Senate Bill 4 similar to some enforcement language of an anti-immigrant bill that created a national backlash against Arizona in 2010. The Arizona law, however, went further by making it illegal for an alien to be in the state without papers and by instituting fines against employers who hire undocumented workers. An effort to start a national boycott of Arizona over the legislation largely failed.
Debate on SB 4 went well into the night, with Democrats repeatedly trying to kill it on procedural challenges because they lacked the votes to defeat it. At one point, several protestors in the gallery were ordered removed by Speaker Joe Straus.
The debate was, at times, emotional and raw. Two members of the House gave especially emotional personal testimony on why they opposed the bill. Their remarks are transcribed below.
Representative Ana Hernandez, D-Houston:
Six years ago, this body considered similar legislation that, although handily passed by this chamber ultimately failed to become law. Yet, here we are again. A majority of you were not members of this body when we last discussed this issue and perhaps you are unaware of the diversity of our body. The issue of immigration is brought up in debate, mostly in an antagonistic manner. It is an important issue for me and a very personal one, because of those illegal are quite often at the center of our debate, I too was once an undocumented immigrant.
A former undocumented immigrant, an illegal alien, is a colleague standing before you today. I was born in Mexico and brought to the United States when I was an infant child. Like so many young adults in the gallery today and throughout our country. Also, like many families, my parents came to the U.S. with the hope and dreams of a better life and opportunities for their daughters. My family and I entered the country and overstayed our visas. We lived in undocumented status for eight years, until the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. We became legal permanent residents, and at age 18, became a naturalized citizen.
I still remember my interview with the immigration officer. I was 18 years old, had attended Texas public schools from kindergarten through high school, graduating when I was 16 years old and was a sophomore in college. I was very nervous over the questions that would be asked during the citizenship examination. I was so nervous that when asked to name the capital of the United States, I responded Austin, Texas. The officer re-asked the question, name the capital of the United States, and I quickly responded Washington, D.C.
The discussion of laws affecting undocumented immigrants, such as this one, SB 4, is not hypothetical for me. It is something that my family and I have lived. During the time that we lived in undocumented status, and although I was just a little girl, I remember the constant fear my family lived with each day, the fear my parents experienced each day as their two little girls went to school not knowing whether there would be an immigration raid that day and they wouldn’t be able to pick up their daughters from school and not knowing who would take care of them if they were deported. My parents worked hard to provide a better life for my sister and I. My mother worked the day shift, and my father worked a night shift to make sure one of them would always be there for us. The daily task of going to the grocery store to buy food for your family may seem like a simple task, but for my family it meant risking a chance of encountering an immigration raid at the grocery store and having our family separated.
[Pauses while choking up.]
I vividly remember being in elementary school and would shy away when other classmates would discuss where they were born. I knew I wasn’t a U.S. citizen and feared the reaction from my classmates if they knew I wasn’t a citizen. I see myself in many of those students now that share the same fears of being deported or having their parents deported, wondering what’s going to happen to them if their parents are deported. Who is going to pick them up from school? Where will they go? Where will they live? As the mother of a 5-year-old boy, I empathize with these families.
Some say immigrant children are a drain on our public schools, our institutions of higher education, but I don’t consider myself a drain. I graduated at age 16 with honors, earned my bachelors and law degree and was elected to the Texas House of Representatives at age 27. I know there are many other immigrants out there like me, waiting to be given the opportunity that I was given. I know first hand the impact SB 4 will have on many families that are currently in the same legal status in which my family once was. Mothers that will be afraid to even go to the grocery store to buy food for their families, as my mother once was afraid. I know how this bill will punish immigrants and push them into the shadows, making our communities less safe as immigrants will be reluctant to report crime or provide evidence and testimony in the prosecution of criminals.
As a mother now, I have a better appreciation for the sacrifices that my parents made for me, to leave a country they called home, come to a country where they didn’t know the language, carrying with them nothing more than a suitcase containing their entire family’s belongings and a heart full of dreams for a better life for their family.
What will be your legacy? Are we showing our love through our words and actions? Or are we demonizing a vulnerable community for political gain?
Representative Gene Wu, D-Houston
Wu’s parents immigrated from China when he was 5. His father now works as an immigration lawyer in Houston. Wu wiped away tears as he spoke:
This topic is painful for me, because I’m an immigrant. My parents are immigrants. I represent a district filled with immigrants. Some are here as refugees. Some are here as citizens. Some are here without papers. But they are all my people.
They should be all of our people.
What makes this especially painful is something Representative [Harold Dutton] brought up. He brought up the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Those are also laws that were created out of fear, would you not agree? Those were laws created out of hatred and misunderstanding, created out of some very negative emotions. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 singled out Chinese and Chinese Americans to be excluded from this country. No other group. You know why they did that? Because Chinese and Chinese Americans were becoming too successful in this country. They were opening up businesses. They were setting up communities because they were marrying and having children, and they looked and sounded and acted too different from everyone else.
In World War II, the Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to concentration camps across the United States. Do you know of any Germans or German Americans who were rounded up? They weren’t, because the Japanese Americans were obviously different. They looked different. They sounded different. And they were obviously aliens, even though they were Americans. This bill, this type of action is particularly painful because it brings up all those memories.
Wu later tweeted a correction to his statement: “I stand corrected on Germans & Italians detained during WWII. Around 11k German nationals were detained. Apologies.”