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Texas may pull up the welcome mat

The state, long friendly to illegal immigrants, debates tough limits.

February 27, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, TEXAS — The Lone Star State has long welcomed Latino immigrants, no matter how they got across the state's 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

Back when California voted to cut public services to illegal immigrants, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was preaching that immigrants were equal players in the state's economy.

But the atmosphere has changed markedly in Texas, home to about 10% of the nation's illegal immigrants.

Now, a growing chorus of Republicans and some Democrats is pushing some of the harshest immigration-related measures in the United States -- laws that would not only deny public services to illegal immigrants but strip their American-born children of benefits as well.

The proposal to deny services to American citizens, which is thought to be the first in the country, is part of a push to challenge the citizenship given automatically to children born in this country to illegal immigrants.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Immigration in Texas: An article in Tuesday's Section A on legislation in Texas that is targeting illegal immigrants said George W. Bush was governor of Texas when California passed Proposition 187. Voters approved Proposition 187 in November 1994. Bush was elected governor in 1994 but did not take office until the following year.

Prior rulings have affirmed that nearly all such children were entitled to birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment. But some legal scholars have questioned whether the amendment, which redefined national citizenship to include the children of slaves after the Civil War, should cover babies born to foreign parents.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated last year that more than 3 million U.S. citizens were born to illegal immigrant parents.

"The Texas bill could be a vehicle to get this before the courts, and we strongly support that," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been pushing Congress to revisit the 14th Amendment. "There is no question that it is time for a review, given the number of people entering the country illegally and giving birth."

Texas' shift toward a more incendiary brand of immigration politics comes at a time when many state lawmakers are frustrated that Washington has failed to stop illegal immigration. Few think President Bush's moderate proposals, which include a guest worker program and enhanced border security, will help much, even if they are approved by Congress.

State Rep. Leo Berman, the Republican legislator who wrote the bill to deny benefits to the children of illegal immigrants, admits that his goal is to set off a fight in the federal courts.

His legislation has been compared to Proposition 187, which was ruled unconstitutional after California voters approved it in 1994, but it goes further. It would deny citizens born to illegal immigrants numerous state services, including unemployment benefits and the ability to obtain professional licenses.

"A pregnant illegal alien can wait at the border, check into a hospital in Texas, give birth without paying a penny, and be rewarded for her illegal behavior," Berman said. "That's outrageous."

Berman's bill is one of more than two dozen proposals targeting illegal immigration in Texas. Other measures would tax money that illegal immigrants wire abroad; require patients to prove they are in the country legally before receiving state medical services; eliminate in-state college tuition breaks for illegal immigrants; and require state agencies to do a thorough accounting of how much illegal immigration is costing the state. Texas is home to about 1 million to 2 million illegal immigrants.

"Why should illegal immigrants, who by virtue of being in the country have broken the law, be able to get the same state services as a citizen?" asked state Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas who is proposing one of several measures to tax remittances to Mexico. He said his legislation was one way to raise money for healthcare programs.

Texas politicians say that proposing such laws would have been unimaginable a decade ago. During his days as governor, Bush regularly praised the cultural and economic contributions Latino immigrants were making to the state. His political strategy paid off: He won 40% of the Latino vote in 1998, a number previously considered unreachable for a Republican.

Bush's approach was a stark contrast from the immigration politics in California during the tenure of Gov. Pete Wilson, who backed Proposition 187, using it to win reelection.

"California has always been more liberal than Texas, but yet the treatment of immigration issues has been night and day," said Rogelio Saenz, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University.

The Texas Republican Party added hard-line immigration language to its platform last year in response to the demands of its conservative base. It included the line "No amnesty! No how. No way," and a call to "suspend automatic U.S. citizenship to children born to illegal immigrant parents," the idea now proposed by Berman.

Latino leaders say they are stunned by the Texas proposals to deny services to children. They promise retaliation at the ballot box.

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