As the midterm elections approach, voters continue to identify illegal immigration as one of their top concerns. Republicans, who have taken a hard line on immigration and border security, figure to gain from voter anger on the issue. But Republicans have a lot to lose, too, as senior editor Nate Blakeslee discovered in reporting his story on the complex politics of immigration reform within the state’s ruling party. Here’s the story behind the story.

What are the chances of the Texas Legislature passing something similar to Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law when lawmakers convene this spring?
Such a bill will definitely be introduced in both the House and the Senate, along with a host of other punitive measures dealing with undocumented immigrants. The Democratic caucus will fight most of these measures, of course, but the more interesting question will be how the Republican leadership deals with these bills. An Arizona bill is poison to some of the party’s biggest campaign funders—the homebuilders, the restaurant and hotel industry, and the big growers—who use a lot of immigrant labor, which is why tough immigration measures have always had an uphill climb in the Legislature. But this time around grassroots Republicans want something done, and the ascendancy of the tea party wing of the GOP means it will be very difficult to quietly kill these bills. The tea partiers have a champion in the Senate—Houston’s Dan Patrick—whose star is also rising and who will make life very hard for Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and Governor Rick Perry.

What will this do to the upcoming legislative session? To the Republican Party?
The session will already be dominated by two major partisan battles: what programs and services to cut in order to balance the state budget, and redrawing state and federal legislative districts. Throwing an Arizona-type bill into the mix could make for an epic meltdown.

The fight over immigration, of course, does not divide neatly along partisan lines, and we could see Republicans squaring off against Republicans if it looks like an Arizona-type bill is gaining traction. This type of fight—business vs. grassroots, the power of money vs. the power of organizing—is a familiar one for Texas Republicans. Grassroots organizers, especially those working on causes dear to social conservatives, like abortion, homeschooling, textbook content, etc. have long felt that their voices are drowned out by the influence of the state’s big employers and their lobbyists in Austin. Grassroots conservatives control the state party apparatus, but they often cannot get their candidates past the primaries, when campaign cash flows to those favored by the Republican establishment.

The party’s worst nightmare would be seeing the tea party become a genuine third party movement (like the Libertarian Party), running candidates to the right of the Republicans. Thus far, Republicans nationwide have been quite effective in co-opting the tea party movement and the energy it brings to the conservative cause. I suppose a day of reckoning is on the horizon, when the tea partiers decide whether they got what they wanted out of Republican elected officials.

In the story you observe that the fight over immigration in a place like Tyler is about race, whereas in the Legislature the subtext of the debate is wages.
This is the hardest question to answer when it comes to immigration: Why are people so fired up about it, and why now? Most of the jobs held by undocumented workers are jobs that were done in years past by American born men and women without high school diplomas. In my years of following politics in Texas, I cannot remember a movement that took the Legislature by storm on behalf of the interests of high school dropouts. So if this isn’t about lost jobs, then what is it about? You sometimes hear immigration hard-liners say that they have no problem with people coming to this country to work, as long as they do it legally. But the complaints you hear about immigrants—that they don’t speak English, don’t respect our customs, take jobs from Americans, use taxpayer-funded hospitals, feed their kids with food stamps, etc.—would by and large all be true (to the extent that they are accurate now) even if the workers in question had papers.

So the real problem for many people seems to be the immigrants themselves, not the means by which they arrived or the jobs that they are doing. The bottom line I think is that communities change—in good ways and bad—when there is a large influx of immigrants, and change is hard to deal with. It’s not as simple as saying people in Tyler are tired of having so many Mexicans and Central Americans in their town, though this is a sentiment you can easily find in almost any Texas town. As a result of immigration, Tyler now has a sizable cohort of new residents who are not very invested in the future of the place, because their families—their “real lives”—are back home. This is not good, but it’s hard to imagine how forcing these newcomers to live on the margins of society will improve the situation.

What do you want readers to take away from your story?
I hope readers will see the complexity of the issue and the nuances that often get lost in some of the less thoughtful commentary, especially on cable news. The fight within the Republican Party mirrors the dilemma that the nation as a whole faces with respect to immigration. We are welcoming undocumented immigrants with one hand and doing our best to keep them out with the other.