Immigration Emerging As Big Issue In 2006 Elections (Fort Worth, Texas Star Telegram)

Feb 20,2006: Immigration Emerging As Big Issue In 2006 Elections (Fort Worth, Texas Star Telegram)

Posted on Mon, Feb. 20, 2006
Immigration emerging as big issue in 2006 electionsBy JOHN KIRSCHStar-Telegram Staff Writer

Illegal immigration is emerging as a growing issue in the 2006 state elections with several polls indicating rising public concern.

With an estimated 9.7 million immigrants living in the country illegally, 1.3 million in Texas, constituents worry about competition for jobs and the impact on social services and schools, according to lawmakers and political analysts. And some candidates, most of them Republicans, are taking advantage of voter discontent.

State Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, said a recent poll she conducted found that immigration was the No. 1 concern of residents of her district, which includes most of Northeast Tarrant County.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, said immigration is also a top issue at town hall meetings she holds in her district, which includes parts of Denton and Tarrant counties.

Across the region, far from Texas 1,200-mile border with Mexico, other candidates for the March 7 primary say they see the same concern.

Its going to be the single biggest issue along with property taxes in state House and Senate races, and pretty much every candidate both Democrats and Republicans ignore it at their peril, said Harvey Kronberg, the editor of an online political newsletter in Austin.

Porous borders

Kari Harris, a neighborhood watch leader for her north Fort Worth neighborhood association, echoes the concerns felt by many Texans. She said she is concerned that U.S. citizens are losing out on jobs, and she worries that the states porous border with Mexico makes it easy for terrorists to enter the United States.

A recent Scripps Howard Texas Poll found that 79 percent of Texans believe the government is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration. Eighty-six percent also believe that U.S. businesses increase the problem by hiring illegal immigrants, the poll found.

Thats consistent with a national Rasmussen poll in November which found that 75 percent of Americans believe immigration will be somewhat or very important in terms of how they vote on Election Day.

I do think it should be a priority, Harris said. We need to have more strict guidelines for people coming into our country.

Truitt said state officials must demand more action by federal officials who oversee the U.S.-Mexican border. Federal officials should consider placing sanctions on Mexico if the tide of immigrants does not stop, she said.

In Tarrant Countys state House District 91, GOP primary candidate Kelly Hancock said the state should work with citizen volunteers to increase border patrols. But he was undecided whether the Minutemen group should serve as a model.

The three candidates for the GOP nomination in Tarrant Countys state House District 99, incumbent Charlie Geren and challengers Chris Hatley and Colby Brown, said they applaud Republican Gov. Rick Perrys recent decision to earmark nearly $10 million to beef up border security. Perry, who is seeking re-election, said the money will pay for more border personnel, training and equipment.

But Geren said more needs to be done. He said he would like a state House committee to convene and hear testimony from law enforcement officials on the border about how the state could stop illegal immigration.

Brown said groups such as the Minutemen citizen border patrol have played a positive role by making illegal immigration a more urgent issue for federal officials.

Hatley said local schools should put more emphasis on English immersion – an approach that requires teachers to primarily speak English when teaching students who are not fluent in the language.

That would be an alternative to bilingual classes, the most common practice in Texas, in which students are taught in their native language while learning English. Hatley said English immersion would speed the assimilation of non-English-speaking students.

The Texas candidates are taking a page from their Congressional counterparts who passed legislation in December that calls for building more fences on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, who supported the immigration-enforcement bill, described the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States as an invasion that is burdening social service programs, including local hospitals.

Babies born to mothers living in the country illegally comprised nearly three-fourths of the births at Fort Worths public John Peter Smith Hospital this year, the Star-Telegram reported Dec. 14. Of the 5,775 deliveries during fiscal year 2005, which ended in September, 4,207 were the children of mothers without immigration documents.

The crisis is so severe that its imperative that we simply secure the border, Burgess said.

About one-third of immigrants lack health insurance compared to 13.3 percent for natives, according to a December 2005 study by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports restrictions on immigration. Many immigrants hold jobs that dont offer health insurance, or make too little money to buy their own insurance, according to the study.

Illegal immigration has also fueled concern about jobs for native-born Americans. The Center for Immigration Studies reports that immigrants account for almost 44 percent of workers in the farming, fishing and forestry industries and almost 26 percent of workers in the construction and extraction industries. The unemployment rate for native-born Americans in those industries is 12.6 percent and 11.3 percent respectively – about twice the national unemployment rate

Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, acknowledged that not every job taken by an immigrant means that a native-born American lost a job.

But it would also be a mistake to assume that dramatically increasing the number of workers in these occupations as a result of immigration policy has no impact on the employment prospects of natives, Camarota wrote in his December 2005 report.

However, Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights advocacy group, said a disconnect exists between the nature of the U.S. workforce and growing sectors of the economy. Workers are getting older and more educated, but most new jobs are in low-wage service industries that require little advanced education, she said. She said more immigrants will be needed to avoid labor shortages.

You dont see a lot of people raising their kids to be farmworkers and work in meatpacking plants, Waslin said.

Politics of immigration

Democrats are more cautious about taking strong positions on illegal immigration. The Texas Democratic Partys 2004 platform expresses support for strengthening border security. But the platform also opposes immigrant bashing because it polarizes society.

Amber Moon, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party, accused Republicans of exploiting immigration for political gain.

Instead of proposing real solutions, its a race to the right, as they compete to see who can come up with the most inflammatory language, Moon said in a written statement.

Truitt rejected that argument. She is being challenged for the Republican nomination by Bill Skinner of Grapevine.

My constituents are bringing it to my attention saying it is a primary concern of theirs, and Im just responding to what my constituents are saying to me, she said.

The political risk among Hispanic-Americans may be minimal. They rank education, healthcare, the economy and jobs as higher issues than immigration, according to a survey released in August 2005 by the Pew Hispanic Center. While a majority of Hispanics nationally express positive attitudes toward immigrants, relatively few favor increasing the flow of legal immigration from Latin America, according to the survey.

These findings clearly indicate that in a policy debate Latinos will not automatically or unanimously adopt what might be commonly perceived as the pro-immigrant position, the survey report states.

Locally, state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, whose district is more than 60 percent Hispanic, said his constituents rarely ask him about immigration issues. He said the United States could stem the flow of illegal immigrants by building up the economies of Mexico and Latin America so people would not come to the United States in search of jobs.

Burnam said Republicans could suffer backlash from Hispanic voters if they back punitive measures.

That is what happened in California after then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson backed Proposition 187. The measure, approved by California voters in 1994, would have barred illegal immigrants from attending public schools and receiving social services from the state. Court challenges have prevented the propositions implementation. But Hispanic support for Republican candidates fell, helping Democrats gain power in California. And some Texas Hispanics are paying attention to the rhetoric.

If candidates talk about shipping everybody back to Mexico, were certainly going to be aware of that and make sure the community knows, said Alberto Govea of Fort Worth, a former district director for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

But for now, many candidates see little down side in backing get-tough policies. That is particularly true in contested GOP primaries, where candidates are seeking ways to gain advantage over rivals, said Kronberg, the editor of the Austin political newsletter.

There will be a race among Republicans to be the most restrictive on immigration, Kronberg said.

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives