For the first time since 2007, Congress is debating a major overhaul of our broken immigration system. The last time this happened, the effort came to pieces under assault from grassroots Republicans and conservative talk show hosts who argued that any bill that granted legal status—“amnesty,” as they called it—to the millions of undocumented immigrants already here was morally repugnant and would only encourage further illegal immigration. The issues have not changed in the intervening six years—there are an estimated 11 million people still living in the shadows, including at least 1.5 million here in Texas—but the politics seem to have shifted considerably. The bipartisan bill brought before the U.S. Senate in April by a group of four Democratic senators and four Republicans—the so-called Gang of Eight—has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the agricultural industry, and many prominent conservatives, including stalwarts like antitax crusader Grover Norquist. Florida senator Marco Rubio, the rising Hispanic star widely thought to be a future Republican candidate for president, has emerged as the Gang of Eight’s chief spokesman. Of course, the last reform effort also had conservative backing (most notably from President George W. Bush). What’s new this time around is that there appears to be consensus within the Republican party that the country’s rapidly growing Hispanic population—now 10 percent of the electorate—makes immigration an issue that can no longer be conceded to Democrats.
Or at least that’s what the GOP’s elders believe. Some figures aligned with the tea party wing remain unconvinced. The emerging leader of this recalcitrant group is Ted Cruz, the new U.S. senator from Texas, who seems to think that the politics of the moment are not so different from 2007 after all. Both Cruz and Rubio, the party’s two best-known Hispanic figures, are taking big gambles, though the stakes are not quite the same. By getting out in front of the Gang of Eight proposal and becoming its chief cheerleader, Rubio is betting his political future that the time is finally right for a grand compromise on one of the nation’s most intractable problems. If his side prevails, he will emerge as a statesmanlike figure, ready, perhaps, to lead the nation. If he is proved wrong, his star will not fade entirely, but it will certainly be dimmed. Cruz is betting his political future too, though his is a much safer bet, since he can’t really lose. If immigration reform fails, he will be a hero to the tea party; if it passes, his valiant opposition will reveal him, in their eyes at least, to have been among the handful of “real” conservatives in the debate.
Yet Cruz is also making a second bet, one that is much more perilous and puts more than just his own political future on the line. He is betting that the Republican party can thrive without the Latino vote. Or, put another way, he is wagering that embracing the tea party is the way forward for the Republicans generally and that, contrary to what other conservatives have been preaching since Obama’s reelection, no turn to the center is necessary for the party to take back the White House.
It’s ironic that a Texan has emerged as one of the leaders of the opposition to the bill, since so much of the hard-line rhetoric about immigration reform is based on fallacies that fade away the closer you get to the border itself. Prominent GOP donors like Houston home builder Bob Perry, who recently passed away, long ago convinced the Republican establishment in Texas to adopt a pragmatic view when it comes to immigration. His legendary political largesse—along with the advice of consultants like Karl Rove, an early proponent of Hispanic outreach—surely helps explain why the state GOP never produced a Pete Wilson, the California governor who infamously tried to kick undocumented kids out of public schools, or why the Legislature hasn’t passed its own version of Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, which Governor Rick Perry famously called “not right” for Texas. But that can’t be the only reason the debate on immigration has been generally more civil here. The truth is that Texas has always been bicultural, not just south of the Nueces—where families can trace their lineage to Spanish immigrants who set up shop a hundred years before the siege of the Alamo—but throughout the state. Enchiladas and steak have both been on the menu in West Texas for as long as anyone can remember, in part because early Anglo settlers relied on Mexican laborers to run their cattle and work in their mines. Our liberal homestead exemption laws protecting homes from tax collectors and creditors, as well as our community property laws regarding divorce, are legacies of the Spanish legal system.
Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, and whose father emigrated from Cuba, is not himself a product of that tradition, and he seems, at times, to be espousing positions that are disconnected from the reality that Texans know well. Take, for instance, his complaint that the Gang of Eight proposal doesn’t do enough to secure the border. Of all the misconceptions distorting the current debate over immigration reform, this is the costliest, literally speaking. As proposed, the bill envisions spending $4.5 billion over the next five years to shore up border security measures. The country already spends roughly $18 billion per year on immigration enforcement, the result of a massive increase in personnel following the September 11 attacks. We now have 21,000 border patrol agents, more than double the number we had before 9/11. The bill calls for adding even more agents, though it does not specify how many.
The bill would also throw another $1.5 billion at fencing, even though Homeland Security officials have not asked for it. That’s because virtually every part of the border deemed suitable for fencing has already been fenced. In the past seven years, Homeland Security has built 650 miles of fencing along various stretches of the two-thousand-mile-long border, at a cost of nearly $3 million per mile. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tried to diplomatically inform lawmakers of this fact at a hearing in April. What, she was asked, would she do with the extra money? Maybe add an extra layer to the existing fencing, she said, or make it taller, “or something of that sort.” The extra money for security was meant to mollify conservatives, but that must mean something different in Washington than it does here: we do not often hear conservative lawmakers in Texas say they want to find a way to spend more money. In some border towns, Homeland Security is now the biggest employer; one way to think about the post-9/11 hiring spree is as a large-scale transfer of wealth from taxpayers across the country to some of the nation’s poorest areas—also not a policy we normally associate with conservatives. In any case, it is undeniably more difficult to cross the border from Mexico into Texas than it has ever been. How difficult? Brooks County, which encompasses hundreds of square miles of sun-blasted scrub north of McAllen, is now among the deadliest zones for undocumented immigrants who try to circumvent checkpoints by walking through the backcountry—129 corpses were found in 2012.
The place where Cruz differs most from Rubio may be on the question of a path to citizenship. Opposition to giving undocumented immigrants a means to stay in the country is often couched in terms of respect for the rule of law. You won’t hear Cruz say it, but you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface of this debate to find another objection as well: the notion that undocumented immigrants are making the country less American somehow. It’s certainly true that immigration, both legal and illegal, along with a higher birthrate among Hispanics, is helping drive a rapidly changing demographic picture in Texas, where they have accounted for 65 percent of the state’s growth since 2000. Some who have arrived illegally are just here to work and send money home, but a majority have put down roots: an estimated 62 percent of undocumented immigrants nationwide have kids who are U.S. citizens (this is why mass deportation—even if we had the kind of enormous enforcement apparatus that could accomplish such a task—is simply not a viable option). There is no question that this influx has presented genuine public-policy challenges in Texas. In Dallas, for example, 54 percent of kids enrolled in prekindergarten don’t speak English at home.
But the reality is that those kids will learn English—even if their parents do not—and will go on to become better educated and earn much more money than their parents ever could. As David Leonhardt noted in the New York Times—in an article he called “Hispanics, the New Italians”—a recent report from the Pew Research Center found that the improvement in education level and earning power for Latinos just one generation removed from arrival is stark. Forty-seven percent of Latino immigrants have no high school degree; among their offspring, the figure falls to 17 percent. Median household income jumps by more than a third for the second generation. And more than a quarter of them will marry someone of a different race or ethnicity. Latino immigration, in other words, has followed the same basic story line as previous waves, like the nineteenth-century influx of European migrants that brought Italians, Jews, and Irish to Ellis Island—and Czechs and Germans to Texas.
Of course, Latino immigrants will thrive even more once their legal status is normalized. And as study after study has demonstrated, this will help Texas—and the country—thrive. Cruz, who ascended from an immigrant family to graduate from Harvard Law School and win a Senate seat, is living proof of that. The tea party movement he champions prides itself on standing apart from the Republican establishment, from Machiavellian consultants like Karl Rove and deep-pocketed benefactors like Bob Perry. Maybe Perry’s money and Rove’s machinations did pollute politics in Texas. But that doesn’t mean they were wrong about everything.