The swirling force of Texas politics

The Hot Issue Not in Governor's Race: Immigration

National debate rages over immigration, but Perry and White say little

By PAUL J. WEBER
|  Wednesday, Sep 22, 2010  |  Updated 6:22 PM CDT
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The Hot Issue Not in Governor's Race: Immigration

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Border Patrol agents detain illegal immigrants apprehended near the Mexican border on May 28 near McAllen. About 25 people were captured in the group about one mile north of the Rio Grande River.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who runs a state with an estimated 1.6 million illegal immigrants, is giving a roomful of real estate agents his greatest hits from the campaign trail.

More job growth. Fewer school dropouts. A retreating federal government. Retired Capt. James F.A. Turner, clapping in a white cowboy hat, likes everything he hears. Then there's what he didn't hear.

"Did he say anything about immigration?" the 70-year-old Turner wondered afterward.

Despite a raging national debate over immigration heading into the midterm elections, Perry and Democrat Bill White have barely whispered the word.

Arizona showed it wasn't happy to leave immigration enforcement to Washington, but Perry and White have been content to leave the issue out of their race to lead Texas, which according to the Pew Hispanic Center has the second-highest number of illegal immigrants behind California.

Perry says discussing immigration policy is pointless until the border is secure. White said he'll have his hands full and can't fix all the federal government's problems. Political analysts say it's business-as-usual in a Texas gubernatorial race, going back to when George W. Bush campaigned in the 1990s.

But when the Texas Legislature convenes weeks after the winner of this campaign is sworn in, some lawmakers expect to be under pressure to address illegal immigration.

Two Republicans have pledged to introduce Arizona-style legislation, which puts local police officers on the front lines of enforcing federal immigration law. State House Affairs committee chairman Burt Solomons said he expects to see 60 or 70 other immigration-related bills also filed.

Solomons, a Republican from conservative North Dallas, said illegal immigration was second only to jobs when he surveyed constituents about their top issues earlier this year.

"It comes up in questions in forums and town halls. 'What's going on with immigration? You plan on doing anything this session?"' Solomons said. "You hear members say 'In my district, this is an important issue.' And you don't hear it from one or two members who seemingly want to be on the forefront."

Last month, state officials testified to Solomons' committee that illegal immigrants cost the state at least $250 million last year in prison and medical care costs. Most out-of-session committee meetings are typically unlively and sparsely attended. The room was nearly packed.

Dueling attacks over ethical lapses and tax records have turned the governor's race nasty between White, the popular former Houston mayor, and Perry, who is seeking an unprecedented third four-year term. But aside from both stating that Arizona's law wasn't right for Texas, neither has said much on immigration.

Years-old criticism that White ran a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants in Houston? Perry's campaign has lobbed the attack infrequently; White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said the accusation is false. Nevertheless, Houston had a hands-off policy toward illegal immigrants, which became an issue only after a man who had been deported multiple times killed a Houston police officer late in White's term.

Even finding the word "immigration" is difficult on the official campaign websites for both and Perry and White. Instead, both lay out plans for beefing up security on the border and beating back drug violence from Mexico.

Not all Texans are left satisfied.

"As a voter, to me, it's important to know what they think about immigration on a larger scale and not just touch on it in terms of border security," said Tiffany Turner, 27, a real estate agent who attended the Perry rally with her grandfather this month but said she's undecided.

Her grandfather, the retired captain, said Perry did mention immigration -- a call for more troops on the border. But he said immigration wasn't a major issue to him in a governor's race.

Bacon, pointing out that immigration proposals didn't pass committee arguments in previous sessions, said White is focused on issues he can affect, such as the budget shortfall and keeping Mexican drug cartel violence out of Texas.

Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry's campaign, said voters know securing the border is the top priority when talking about immigration. Perry has maintained that a discussion over policy is futile until then.

"As part of the exercise of, let's throw ideas on a wall and see what will work, we've been engaged in that dialogue for the better part of two years," Perry said last month. "But the fact is, I'm not going to be distracted from what has to occur, and that's border security."

At a potluck for Democrats in Seguin days earlier, White told a woman who asked about immigration that he'd "have his hands full running the state" and wouldn't be able to solve the problems of the federal government.

But he added, "We need to have some system that allows people to distinguish between people who are working and paying taxes on one hand, and narco traffickers and human traffickers on the other -- some kind of reality-based system."

Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, said neither side wants to risk alienating Latino voters.

But he thinks immigration could become a bigger issue as Election Day nears.

"White's not quite walking the tightrope that Gov. Perry's walking, but probably holding back a little bit more than you might expect from a Democratic candidate in a state with such a large Latino vote," he said.

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