Latino Americans, the three-part, six-hour PBS documentary airing in September, is at many turns a gut-wrenching chronicle of bias, injustice, and cheated dreams. But it’s also an inspiring tale of often-spontaneous yet skillfully orchestrated Latino political activism, a saga that includes the American G.I. Forum, a groundbreaking civil rights organization begun by Corpus Christi physician Hector Garcia in the late forties; Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, which led a strike in Starr County and a march on Austin in the mid-sixties; the Raza Unida party, founded in Crystal City in 1970, whose candidate for Texas governor received over 200,000 votes just two years later; San Antonio activist Willie Velásquez’s Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in the seventies and eighties; and the mass immigration-policy protests in most major American cities in 2006. Let’s keep this tradition of political start-ups in mind as we consider the evolving position of Texas Republicans on immigration reform.
Until recently, the Texas GOP tended to follow a line of thinking that can be traced back to Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 signed a comprehensive immigration reform bill granting amnesty to millions of undocumented workers; in Latino Americans, former Reagan staffer Linda Chavez recalls her boss saying, “An illegal alien is just a willing worker.” For decades we Texans have posted a huge Help Wanted sign on our southern border, with the vast majority of us looking the other way while willing workers streamed across the Rio Grande. Years before NAFTA allowed a free flow of goods, we profited from an almost entirely unregulated and immensely productive cross-border labor market, with undocumented immigrants providing a low-wage, highly motivated, uncomplaining (i.e., unlikely to file workers’ compensation claims) labor force that supercharged our economy—and now accounts for almost half of all workers in Texas’s booming construction business.
Like Reagan, Bush 43 favored a comprehensive immigration reform bill that appeared to be a win-win-win: undocumented immigrants could emerge from the shadows and hasten their assimilation into the middle class, making all of us more prosperous and rebranding the Republican party as more Latino-friendly—which would likely ensure that the GOP could win enough of the Latino vote to prevail in future national elections. A 2006 bill passed in the U.S. Senate before dying in the House, but like the immigration reform bill the Senate passed this June, it didn’t get the votes of either Texas senator. However, in the more recent vote, Senator John Cornyn was joined—many would say superseded—by a much fiercer ideologue, Ted Cruz, who despite his rookie status is now guiding the Texas GOP to a position far to the right of Reagan and Bush. (As the overwhelming 2016 presidential preference of likely Texas primary voters, Cruz can now be considered the de facto leader of the state party.)
Chucking both the pragmatism and compassion of the Reagan-Bush “willing worker” philosophy, Cruz and like-minded conservatives want to hermetically seal the border before even considering the legalization of undocumented immigrants already in the country. At the same time, they adamantly reject a path to citizenship (no matter how long and arduous that path may be), which Cruz regards as “an amnesty that undermines the rule of law.”
But from a Texas perspective (as opposed to the early GOP caucus/primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, where Cruz is already stumping), this moral high ground looks as flat as the Rio Grande delta. Not only did we Texans deliberately leave the back gate unlocked, but for decades our businesses have avoided the legal consequences of employing undocumented workers by misclassifying them as “independent contractors” responsible for checking their own papers. It’s the height of hypocrisy to blame willing workers for breaking the law when they were so eagerly welcomed by their employers, no questions asked.
Behind this curtain of bogus moralizing, however, Texas’s Republican honchos seem to be weighing an expedient political choice: whether they should invest political capital in wooing Latino voters or instead rely on gerrymandering, voter suppression, and an energized white, nativist base to hold back the demographic tide that swept Barack Obama into a second term and continues to rise. With notable success, Bush and chief strategist Karl Rove chose the former path.
But the Anglos-only approach has become more tempting with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark June ruling that made enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act substantially more difficult. The same day that the high court announced its decision, Texas attorney general Greg Abbott (Rick Perry’s likely successor) reinstated a redistricting plan and voter ID law that federal courts had rejected as discriminatory against minorities. Just weeks later the U.S. Department of Justice fired back, claiming that the new Texas statutes wouldn’t simply result in the disenfranchisement of minorities but were part of a persistent pattern of intentional discrimination.
Nevertheless, the real issue for Texas Republicans may not be how long they can keep a decisive percentage of Latinos out of the voting booth but how quickly they can get a greater proportion of Latino voters into the middle class. That’s because of what might be called the “$50K break,” a startling shift in the preferences of Texas minority voters as they cross the $50,000 threshold in annual household income. Exit polls from 2010 show that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White did 15 percentage points worse among minority voters whose household incomes sat north of the $50K barrier than he did among less affluent minority voters. And because African Americans are unlikely to migrate to the GOP at any income level, such figures probably underestimate the GOP affinity of middle-class Hispanics.
The $50K break is a potential heartbreaker for Democrats who hope to turn Texas blue. But today’s radicalized Texas Republicans don’t get it, instead doubling down on policies—such as regressively taxing the working poor, undermining public education, and restricting access to health care and family planning—that will keep many Texas Latinos out of the middle class and out of the party’s reach. And as history demonstrates, Latino political activism can scale up remarkably quickly, even after lengthy quiescence.
During the 2006 protests, nearly half a million Latinos marched on Dallas—and this was before social media enabled the type of rapid pro-democracy mobilization we saw during the Arab Spring. Long-indifferent national Democrats are suddenly sending money and consultants to Texas, but the real game-changer could be yet another bootstrapped Latino political movement. In the not-so-distant future, our state’s complacent Republican leaders may well discover that this summer’s hard line on immigration reform and voting rights only hastened an early Texas Spring.