Texas Democrats see political opportunity in hardline immigration law

Judicial whiplash over Texas’s controversial new immigration law has delayed its implementation, but potentially not its political effects.

S.B. 4 is the latest in a string of local- and state-level immigration crackdowns that goes back at least to California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure supported by then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) that deputized individual Californians to report anyone suspected of being undocumented to immigration authorities.

The backlash to Proposition 187 was immediate — it prompted 70,000 opponents to march against it in Los Angeles — and long-term: Fallout over Proposition 187 galvanized California’s Hispanics into political participation as stalwart Democrats, turning the country’s largest state solid blue.

A similar shift happened in Arizona following the 2010 SB1070 “show me your papers” law that angered many Latinos in that state.

S.B. 4 makes entering Texas outside a port of entry a state crime, giving local law enforcement authority to pursue potential immigration violations that had previously been a strictly federal purview.

“I think Texas is on the verge of becoming a purple state, especially if the Republicans keep practicing the politics of hate and fearmongering and division,” said Domingo García, president of the Texas-based League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Latino civil rights organization.

But Texas has been on the verge of becoming competitive for years, with Democrats falling just short in a series of hyped underdog runs that have scared off many left-leaning donors.

Six years ago, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) came close to unseating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), coming within 2.5 percentage points.

Cruz, along with Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), is the closest thing Senate Republicans have to a vulnerable incumbent, and both hold seats rated as “likely Republican” by the Cook Political Report.

The Democrats say S.B. 4 is not a turning point, but another step toward an inevitable end.

“The Latino change in Texas has already been happening. Let’s remember that Texas is a single-digit state. Let’s remember that in 2020, Donald Trump won by just six points. That Ted Cruz barely survived by two-and-a-half points in 2018. Cycle after cycle after cycle, Texas Democrats have been getting closer and closer and closer,” said Manny García, an Austin-based political operative and former executive director of the state Democratic Party.

As Texas elections have gotten closer, the state government has become more aggressive on immigration policy.

S.B. 4 — a law that was first blocked by an appeals court, reinstated by the Supreme Court, and within a matter of hours blocked again by a lower court — is a next step in GOP Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to wrestle border policy away from the federal government.

Abbott has spearheaded Operation Lone Star, a program that’s brought Texas National Guardsmen sometimes into direct contact with migrants at the border, while Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) has gone after charity organizations that cater to migrants.

Paxton in February opened an investigation into Annunciation House, a well-known Catholic migrant shelter in El Paso, for alleged human smuggling.

“I wasn’t around in California back when 187 happened, but just seeing it here and feeling that even a shelter like Annunciation House, could be labeled a stash house, or could be labeled as part of a human smuggling ring, it feels like something so much more nefarious,” said Mario Carrillo, campaigns manager for America’s Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.

If implemented, S.B. 4 could fundamentally change how many Texas Latinos live, particularly those in mixed-status households, and could aggravate relations between the state’s Hispanics and local law enforcement officials.

Two provisions are especially controversial: one allows all law enforcement officers in Texas to detain anyone on suspicion of being in the country illegally. The other would empower judges to order undocumented individuals to physically cross into Mexico or face stiff prison sentences.

The law might not see the light of day — it’s an unorthodox measure that many say is unconstitutional. That would blunt any political side effects among voters who never feel its implementation.

Bexar County Sheriff Antonio Salazar earlier this week spoke out against the law on the grounds that it could encourage racial profiling on the part of deputies, according to a report by the San Antonio Express News.

Yet many Texas Latinos are more conservative than their peers in California or Arizona, and immigration enforcement agencies such as the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection are a major source of work for Hispanics along the border.

“There’s a subset of the Latino community, I would say 80 percent of all [Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] agents, Border Patrol agents are Hispanic. So that’s their livelihood. That’s what they depend on. So they’re going to be voting, maybe Republican, but there’s also a lot of families on the border, they’re mixed so you know, grandma and grandpa might be undocumented but their children and grandchildren are U.S. citizens,” said Domingo García.

“And they don’t want to know that they got arrested because they went to church or they went to the store and then they got picked and are being deported. And that the local police officer becomes an ICE agent. That’s where I think the fear and the resistance will come about, and that’s what we saw in Arizona and we saw in California.”

In California, a state with a comparable Latino population to Texas, the 1994 election saw Proposition 187 adopted by popular vote, and Wilson was reelected to his second term in office.

At the time, support for Proposition 187 was high, even among the state’s voting Latinos.

The big shift in California politics came as Latinos who had never participated in politics began registering to vote amid fear of 187’s effects on their lives.

Texas Latinos are more politically active than their California counterparts of the early 1990s, but there is still a broad segment of the Hispanic electorate that’s essentially been sitting on the sidelines.

“There’s always this running joke in the Rio Grande Valley that turnout is high in the May elections, not the November elections, because it’s school board races,” said Manny García.

Redistricting after the 2020 Census favored Republicans generally, even netting them a first-in-a-century win in a Rio Grande Valley congressional seat now held by Rep. Mónica De La Cruz (R).

But that competitiveness has also fired up the Democratic political machinery in the region to get voters to the polls in November.

And local Democrats believe the conservative family values common in the region don’t translate to the national political definition of conservatism.

“A family in the Rio Grande Valley is not sitting around applauding [Reps.] Marjorie Taylor Greene [R-Ga.] and Lauren Boebert [R-Colo.]. They are not sitting around applauding every single thing Donald Trump does. They’re not doing that, right. So Republicans are delusional if they believe that that’s what’s going on in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Manny García.

And while the Texas Democratic Party has shown competitiveness in tough local races, it’s fighting for campaign money in a difficult cycle where most national attention will be on proven battleground states.

The fact that Texas Democrats haven’t won a statewide election since 1994 haunts members of the party and scares away big money donors, including Texans who fund out-of-state races they deem winnable.

Texas demographics are changing, however, not just becoming more Latino but younger.

“We have about 1.8 million new voters since [2018], a majority of them are Latino. And this could be the galvanizing force. Sort of that Rosa Parks moment that triggers Latinos to go out and vote and become more active,” said Domingo García.

National Democrats have yet to commit serious money to Texas campaigns, but some party strategists are taking note of the opportunity. 

“There is a huge opening for Democrats to take advantage, complete and total draconian overreach. S.B. 4 is clearly the spiritual descendant of those other failed anti-immigrant, anti-Latino laws, which are designed to terrorize Latinos and other communities of color,” said María Cardona, a national Democratic political strategist.

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