Is this check-mate?
With Gov.-elect Greg Abbott poised to take over the governor’s mansion in the Lone Star State later this month, the Texas legislature will be in prime position to attack and ultimately dismantle one of the state’s most successful pro-immigrant initiatives on the books: the Texas DREAM Act.
In 2001, then-Gov. Rick Perry signed the landmark legislation with little fanfare, making Texas the first state in the country to offer some undocumented students a chance to pay in-state tuition at public universities and community colleges. At least 16 other states have followed in Texas’ footsteps, allowing thousands of young undocumented immigrants to take advantage of lower-cost college education. Supporters have raved about the program’s economic benefits to individual states, seen as a realistic approach to immigration issues in lieu of nationwide reform.
But those benefits could easily unravel in the very state where the DREAM began. When Abbott becomes governor Jan. 20, he will have a legislature behind him that’s notably more conservative than before – a combination that could upend a number of issues from voting reform to reproductive rights. And after a tumultuous final six months of campaigning and political uproar in Texas over both a flood of unaccompanied minors at the border and President Obama’s executive actions, state legislators seem poised to take their own action on immigration.
Abbott, who is moving up from his role as state attorney general, managed to keep a tight lid on talk about the DREAM Act while vying for the governorship last fall. Though he has said that he supports reforming the program, Abbott has publicly declined to go as far as calling for an outright repeal of the measure. Instead, he has indicated that he would not veto legislation to repeal the DREAM Act should state lawmakers succeed in passing a bill. Those carefully placed words may come into play later on.
For Texas Republican Dan Patrick, who was elected in November to assume the powerful position as the state’s next lieutenant governor, his stance is far less ambiguous. Patrick has already vowed to do away with the DREAM Act, and he has a checkered history with views of Latino immigrants. In 2006, he warned that immigrants entering the U.S. border were bringing “Third World diseases” along with them, including polio and leprosy. (The entire Western Hemisphere has been certified as “polio-free” since 1994). More recently, Patrick has called for increased resources at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to “stop the invasion.”
Patrick is poised to be the champion behind bringing down the DREAM Act. According to reports, he has already enlisted the help of Sen.-elect Lois Kolkhorst – a Republican who has also signed onto the immigrant “invasion” theory. In an interview with The Houston Chronicle last month, Kolkhorst said she was already in talks with Patrick and Abbott to make “complete repeal or toughening of the standards” a policy priority for the next legislative session.
The key players already have the blessing of the state GOP, leaving little standing in the way of legislation reaching Abbott’s desk for a final signature. The party made banishing in-state tuition benefits for undocumented immigrants a top policy plank in its final platform. Other harsh anti-immigration positions include the prohibition of sanctuary cities and protect local law enforcement officers in being able to seek the immigration status of anyone taken into custody.
Talk of new legislative moves in Texas to walk back immigration laws come as Obama works to implement major executive actions on immigration. Starting as soon as February, the federal government is expected to begin offering temporary work permits and deportation relief to as many as five million undocumented immigrants who currently live in United States. Abbott has already filed a legal challenge to the executive measures, leading 23 other states in efforts to gut the new programs before they even begin.
The plan to take down the DREAM Act, however, is hardly foolproof. Others have tried and ultimately failed to bring down the legislation. But Texas lawmakers have long walked a delicate line in dealing with immigration issues. While the power of the Latino vote was likely diluted by redistricting and changes to voting laws (two issues championed by Abbott), political research firm Latino Decisions estimates that one in four registered voters in Texas is Hispanic, making the growing demographic a political force to be reckoned with.
It’s an equally complicated situation for Abbott. While national Latino voters largely went for Democratic candidates in the 2014 midterm elections, Abbott was one of a handful of Republican candidates who fared well with the coveted voting bloc. He ultimately won 44% of the Latino vote in November after concerted efforts to woo Hispanics, including releasing a Spanish-language campaign ad trumpeting his Hispanic in-laws. Meanwhile, Abbott’s wife, Cecilia Abbott, is set to make history as the first Latina to become first lady of Texas.
In the past it was Perry, a staunch Republican, who was the unlikely defender of the DREAM Act. It became a problem for him during the 2011 Republican presidential primary when he called other GOP hopefuls “heartless” for not supporting in-state tuition opportunities to all young students, regardless of their immigration status. But just a few short years and an administration change later, Texas lawmakers are seeing the DREAM Act a bit differently.