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Texas Senators Were For Immigration Reform Before They Were Against It
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By a 82-15 vote, the Senate has taken up comprehensive immigration reform. Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised an “open as possible process” for amendments, which means creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants still hasn’t cleared two formidable roadblocks in Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who respectively are insisting upon a totally secure border and no path to citizenship. Like the Texas Republican Party, Cornyn and Cruz have come a long way from their relatively progressive stances of only a decade ago. When it comes to immigration reform, they were for it before they were against it.
Reactionary anti-immigration politics are somewhat new to Texas, home to 1.65 million unauthorized immigrants. While California Gov. Pete Wilson was campaigning against illegal immigration in 1994, candidate George W. Bush cut a different trail in Texas, touting education reform as an economic boom to Hispanics. His pro-immigration policies lead to him getting 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, a high-water mark for Republicans.
Back then, Texas Republicans competed for the Hispanic vote. Even Rick Perry signed a state version of the DREAM Act in 2001. And as Texas attorney general, Cornyn was no different. He issued an opinion affirming the right of undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses and cracked down on fake “immigration specialists”. And as a senate candidate in 2002, Cornyn’s border agenda called for increasing federal spending for education, health care and highways—omitting talk of border fences and increased security personnel.
But it was as a first-term senator that he tried to make his mark on immigration, offering what he called “a straightforward and effective guest worker program that will recognize the vital role hard-working immigrants play in our economy.” The bill would have allowed undocumented immigrants to work legally in the U.S. for three years before applying for permanent residency. Though it stopped short of offering a path to citizenship, Cornyn’s bill would have allowed immigrants here illegally to benefit from Social Security, Medicare and U.S. labor laws.
At a distance of a decade, Cornyn’s guest worker bill stands in sharp contrast to his present-day threats to offer an amendment to require “complete operational control of every single border sector” before liberalizing immigration. At the time, Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza called Cornyn’s guest worker bill “an important step forward,” while opponents called it amnesty. The McCain-Kennedy immigration bill took precedence over Cornyn’s, and though he initially supported the bipartisan plan, Cornyn withdrew his backing and became a border security hawk when opposition to immigration spiked in 2005.
Cornyn’s position on guest workers moderated the difference between the anti-amnesty crowd and compassionate conservatism of Bush, who liked to say that “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.” And helping then-Gov. Bush come up with his liberal policies was a bright, young Harvard-trained lawyer named Ted Cruz.
In the 2000 presidential campaign, Cruz was part of the policy team that came up with the immigration proposal to cleave Immigration and Naturalization Services into two agencies, to speed up immigration applications, to increase work visas, and to let relatives of permanent residents to visit them during the application process.
More than a decade later, Cruz has established himself as a law-and-order leader. Before voting against the immigration bill in committee, Cruz offered amendments to triple the number of border security agents and to block the path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
A sea change in Texas politics caused Cornyn and Cruz to evolve on the issue. In the pre-tea party era,
Texas Republicans still worried about beating well-funded Democratic candidates. Now their biggest worry is getting “primaried” by more conservative alternatives, which is how Cruz became a senator in 2012. Despite the shifting political landscape, Texas still shares 800 miles of border with Mexico. The politics change, but this issue is never going away.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at and on Twitter @JasStanford.