The filmmakers behind The Rational Middle documentary series on immigration took their show on the road in Austin this past week with a screening of two of their films at the Bullock Museum. After the films were shown, a robust discussion of the topic unfolded including veteran Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
“There are few things that would bring me back to Austin,” said former Texas House State Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Cook, a Republican who retired from the Legislature last year.
“This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” Cook said. “This is a do-what’s-right-for-this-country issue.”
Cook and Rep. Mary González, a Democrat from El Paso County, agreed that building a physical barrier along the international boundary with Mexico would not solve the nation’s immigration challenges.
The wall, González said, is not a serious policy prescription. “We know it doesn’t work. But we also know it’s a really great talking point,” she said. Truly securing the border would require comprehensive reform including a way for those who simply want to work to come into the country legally while focusing enforcement efforts on those who wish to do harm, González said.
Denise Gilman, Director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, said that while policy solutions may seem straightforward, lawmakers in Washington have lacked political will.
“We can do this. This is the United States of America. We can think of ways to manage immigration,” Gilman said. “There really has to be a path to citizenship…otherwise, we’ll have a permanent underclass.”
Gilman said it’s counterproductive for President Donald Trump to move toward ending protections for young undocumented immigrants under the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Scrapping the Obama-era program, which shields certain immigrants from deportation without granting legal status, would cost the country at least $350 billion in lost economic activity, Gilman said. “That’s without even thinking about the impacts of ripping families apart,” she said.
CEO of Mesa SW Restaurants Jim Baron, who’s also a member of Texans for Economic Growth, stressed that he cannot find enough employees even for good-paying jobs. “I can’t staff my restaurants,” Baron said. "They're not low-end workers," he said pointing to the fact that many are managers making more than $60,000 per year.
Despite paying a starting wage of $17 per hour, Baron said legal residents are wary of restaurant work. “I can’t find them. Those immigrants show up and work hard every day,” he said. “They show up on time.”
In Baron’s view, there is a lot of misdirected anger about the immigration system, which is widely considered broken. "Too often we take the victims of the system and elevate them and make them the problem," Baron said. “They’re regular people who want to work.”
Former Chairman Cook was asked by the discussion’s moderator Loren Steffy about his multiple attempts to make progress on immigration at the state level. Specifically, Cook talked about trying to convince fellow lawmakers in Austin to approve driver permits for undocumented people. The proposal was rejected in multiple sessions of the Texas Legislature because of anti-immigrant sentiment in the base of the Republican Party.
Cook thinks the tide is turning.
“The good news is the voters said loud and clear in November ‘we’re not happy with this,’” Cook said. That’s why Republican leadership is taking a more “tempered” approach to a variety of issues in the current legislative session, he said. Cook noted, however, that once again there is a proposal to do away with in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, a policy known as the Texas Dream Act.
The proposed repeal of the Act is off base because it doesn’t reflect the state’s social or economic reality, Cook said.
“If we’re going to be competitive, we have to have these kids be well educated,” Cook said. When the bill was approved in 2001, there were only 4 “no” votes out of 181 members of the Legislature. It was signed into law by then-Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.
“Give these young people a real future,” Cook said. “Some of our best and brightest kids are graduating and we have a cloud around them now,” he said. “I hope that sooner than later the federal government addresses this issue because the time has come.”
Baron, the restaurant owner, said it wasn’t sufficient to push for things like driver permits for undocumented people. What’s needed is visas for people who want to work, Baron said. A driver permit bill “isn’t going to change the world,” he argued.
But Rep. González pushed back on that, arguing that incremental progress is sometimes the best way to approach an issue as complex as immigration policy. She supports comprehensive reform, of course, but incremental progress can help to “plant the seeds that immigrants are good and an important part of the fabric of our society,” González said.