Friday, November 21, 2008

Bills targeting illegal immigration likely to fuel clashes in Legislature

By Enrique Rangel A-J AUSTIN BUREAU
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Story last updated at 11/19/2008 - 1:46 am

AUSTIN - Many of the divisive issues that triggered tension and nasty verbal fights in the last legislative session apparently will make a return appearance next year.
For starters, on Monday Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, introduced a series of bills aimed at putting the brakes on illegal immigration in Texas, including one that would make English the official language in the state. And though a good number of legislators and legal analysts don't think Berman's bills will go anywhere, all sides agree that the proposed legislation is likely to trigger nasty legislative fights.
If that happens, Panhandle and South Plains legislators could be dragged into the political melees, just like last session.
"I am confident that they will get through the House this time," Berman said of the bills he filed Monday. The ones he filed last year never saw the light of day last because they were killed by Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, the panel the bills were sent to for preliminary hearings.
A committee chairman has the power to kill bills he or she does not like, and Swinford said he killed Berman's bills because if they had passed in the Legislature, they could have not survived court challenges and the state of Texas would have been stuck with millions of dollars in legal fees for defending them.
Berman is uncertain whether his bills can pass in the Senate because the upper chamber requires two-thirds of its 31 members to agree on bringing a bill to the floor, and supporters of the bill, most or all of them Republican, do not have a two-thirds majority.
Nonetheless, he filed his bills because like millions of Texans, he is frustrated that the federal government has done little to stop illegal immigration, Berman said.
"If it is a federal issue, why hasn't the government dealt with it?" he asked.
"Illegal aliens are costing our state millions of dollars," he said. "At Parkland Hospital in Dallas, 70 percent of all births are to illegal aliens, and we have 25,000 illegal aliens in jail that are costing the government $39 million. It's the largest unfunded mandate in our state."
His English-only bill would require that all state government agencies deal with English only, he said. His bill is similar to measures that Arizona, California and other states have passed in recent years, he said.
In addition to the English-only bill, Berman filed a measure that would deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, another that would require employers to verify whether an immigrant worker is in the country illegally, and several others.
Swinford and Rep. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, say they understand Berman's frustration but the law is very clear: Illegal immigration is a federal issue.
"I cannot comment on those bills because I have no idea what committees I am going to be in or what committee will hear those bills" next year, Swinford said. "(But) my personal reading is that the Constitution has not changed. Immigration is part of the federal government, not of the state."
Heflin said that as happened last year, he anticipates that Berman's bill may trigger ugly floor fights, mainly along partisan lines, with a majority of Republicans in favor and a majority of Democrats against it.
"I think Swinford is absolutely correct," Heflin said. "I think that the (Texas) attorney general is going to come back with the same opinion that this is a federal issue and that we would be well advised not to deal with it."
Texas Solicitor General James C. Ho, an expert on illegal immigration issues, particularly on birthright citizenship, said through Texas attorney general spokesman Jerry Strickland that because of his current post, he could not comment on any pending legislation.
However, in testimony before Swinford's committee last year - before becoming solicitor general - Ho told panel members that Berman's bills would be unconstitutional, especially denying U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants American citizenship.
"Citizenship laws are dictated by Congress, not the states under Article I of the Constitution," Ho said.
Berman said he is not worried about what the Attorney General's Office may say if his bills pass in the Legislature.
"We're a separate branch of the government," he said of the Legislature.
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