The Texas Legislature is trying again to push forward legislation targeting illegal immigration.
A House committee on Wednesday evening heard a slew of Republican-backed bills, including one that would fine or put behind bars people who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. All of the bills were left pending in the committee.
A bill by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, raised questions because it initially exempted people who hired illegal immigrants as domestic help. However, Riddle removed that clause from her bill, leaving only those who attempt to verify the citizenship status of their employees as exempt from the state felony charges.
"This is a very low hurdle to clear with a high penalty if you don't make any effort to do so," Riddle said.
Even after the clause was removed, opposition to Riddle's bill was fierce.
Critics say the measure would increase discrimination against lawful workers who may look foreign and would only splinter an already-fragmented immigration system. Immigration attorneys warned that federal immigration law pre-empts state law in this area and that inconsistent enforcement would be unavoidable.
"It is not within your power to solve this tremendously complex problem," Robert Loughran, an immigration attorney at FosterQuan, LLP, told the committee. "This remains a federally-defined issue with plenty of case law to back that up. Absent a comprehensive solution to this problem across the United States, we are not solving the problem."
Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, portrayed his bill that would make English the official language of Texas as a cost-saving measure.
Berman claimed the measure would save the state millions because it would then print things only in English. The state comptroller's office did not produce a fiscal note on the bill, and opponents were skeptical that the bill was primarily about saving money.
Representatives from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued that the legislation isn't about cost-savings but is targeting immigrants, many of whom don't speak English.
"It's clear that the real intent is to send the message that English is the official language of Texas," said Luis Figuera, staff attorney with the organization. He added that today's immigrant population is learning English faster than previous generations.
The state should be more concerned with helping immigrants learn English instead, he said.
Several bills seek to require employers to enroll in the federal employment verification system, E-Verify. Employers can use the voluntary online program to determine a worker's citizenship status
Supporters say Texas employers should be required to use the program, but opponents say the error rate is too high and the program doesn't actually detect a large percentage of unauthorized workers. They say E-Verify is limited in its nature and can't detect stolen identities.
"There is no way to fix this without the federal government," said Norman Adams, co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy. "We are attacking the economic machines that run this state and employ our people, and that's the last thing we need to be doing. We don't need any of these E-Verify bills."
One thing both sides agreed on was that the federal government has failed to implement effective immigration law. A resolution by Rep. John Garza, R-San Antonio, urging Congress to overhaul the immigration system got widespread support from witnesses and members on the committee.
"I want to thank you for bringing the best piece of legislation I've seen come through this committee this session," Rep. Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, said.