Jan. 4, 2007, 11:18AM
Illegal workers the talk of Texas
A dozen bills filed on the issue could dominate and divide the state Legislature
By R.G. RATCLIFFE
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
TEXAS' ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
• Population: 1.4 million live in Texas.
• Numbers rise: Up 270,000 in past five years.
• Delivering a service: About 70 percent of the 26,000 births at Houston and Dallas public hospitals in 2005 were to mothers who are illegal immigrants.
• Impacting schools: 135,000 undocumented children are in Texas public schools.
Sources: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Harris and Dallas counties
AUSTIN — They work as maids and busboys. They build homes and highways. They bone chickens on the way to market.
They are worth billions of dollars to the Texas economy, but as members of the working poor they also are a drain of hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers.
They are the 1.4 million illegal immigrants that the federal government estimates live in Texas.
Half are divided evenly between the Dallas and Houston areas, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, with an additional 20 percent in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Less than 5 percent live in the traditional Hispanic capital of Texas: San Antonio.
Their numbers in Texas grew by 270,000 in five years, and an estimated 70 percent of the 26,000 births at Houston and Dallas public hospitals in 2005 were to mothers who are undocumented immigrants. Unreimbursed care cost the Harris County Hospital District $97 million in 2005.
And with Congress failing to enact comprehensive immigration reform, illegal immigrants are poised to become one of the hottest issues before the Texas Legislature.
"If we do nothing, in 10 years, just based on the current birth rate, we're going to have 50 million (illegal immigrants and their children) in the United States. Our country will change totally. Our culture will be gone," said state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler. "We've been invaded without firing a shot."
The fight by Berman and other conservative legislators to battle illegal immigration at the state level is likely to be emotional and possibly bitter.
Some Republicans and the influential Texas Association of Business want no action from state lawmakers, especially if it involves employer sanctions. And Democratic Hispanic legislators say conservatives such as Berman are using Latinos as a "political piñata."
"Politically, some people get caught up in trying to score cheap political points, but it doesn't contribute to the discussion about immigration and immigration reform," said state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston.
A dozen bills already have been filed dealing with illegal immigration, many focused on restricting state and local services. A legislative caucus also has proposed harsh sanctions on businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
Then-Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn recently issued a report saying illegal immigrants are worth at least $17.7 billion to the state's economy. She said the taxes they pay cover the cost of state services, but she also said they are a drain of about $929 million on local governments, mostly because of the costs associated with indigent health care.
Berman said he thinks Strayhorn's report seriously underestimates the cost of illegal immigrants to the state. Citing research by the conservative Lone Star Foundation, Berman said illegal immigrants cost the state $3.5 billion a year.
Some of the legislation and legislative proposals involving illegal immigrants include:
• Birthright citizenship: Berman's bill would deny automatic citizen access to state programs for children born in Texas to illegal immigrant parents after his bill becomes law. Berman wants the bill, if passed, to be used to test birthright citizenship in the federal courts.
Berman said "anchor babies" should not have automatic citizenship because the 14th Amendment requires the baby must be "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States.
"We want to show the illegal aliens here have no desire at all to accept our culture or speak our language," Berman said.
Noriega said Berman's legislation "flies in the face" of U.S. national values. He said a sensible federal immigration policy would end many problems.
Gov. Rick Perry, who made border security a major issue of his re-election campaign, recently called legislation such as Berman's divisive.
• Remittance fees: Legislation would levy an 8 percent fee on the remittances that are sent from Texas to Mexico and Latin America, although U.S. citizens and legal resident aliens could ask for a refund. The fee would raise about $250 million, Berman said, which would go to hospitals that provide health care for illegal immigrants.
The average first U.S. job for a new illegal immigrant pays $900 a month compared with about $150 in their native country, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
This year, Latin Americans in Texas will send about $5.2 billion back home in wire transfers, typically about $100 to $300 a month. Remittances from Mexicans living in the U.S. amount to almost 3 percent of that country's gross national product. The remittance fee bill may have a good chance of passing because it is being sponsored in the House by Berman and in the Senate by liberal Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.
• In-state college tuition: Several bills, including one by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, would eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant children who attend public colleges. They would have to pay the higher tuition of foreign students who are legal residents.
"In-state tuition is meant for people who are here legally, not illegally," Riddle said. "Taxpayers have to subsidize tuition."
The tuition law was passed in 2001, carried by Noriega and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. Current state law allows any student who has lived in the state for three years and graduated from a Texas high school to get in-state tuition.
Strayhorn estimated about 3,800 children of immigrants got in-state college tuition in 2004, less than 1 percent of all students in Texas institutions of higher education.
• Proof of citizenship for voting: Several bills would require proof of citizenship for a person to vote. Similar legislation has failed in the past.
• Marriage licenses: People applying for a marriage license would have to swear under penalty of felony perjury that they are not getting married to circumvent immigration laws.
• Driver's license: Legislation would allow immigrants to obtain a Texas driver's license by using a similar document from a foreign country.
Supporters say illegal immigrants are here and driving but without a license they cannot buy auto insurance. Opponents say issuing licenses on unsecure foreign documents could pose a security risk.
• Employer sanctions: No bills have been filed, but the research arm of a legislative caucus called the Texas Conservative Coalition proposes several sanctions against companies that employ illegal immigrants.
Bo Pilgrim, of Pittsburg, who runs the nation's largest poultry producing company, said the nation needs the labor of the illegal immigrants who are living in the shadows.
"I'm here to testify that it's real," Pilgrim recently told a group of border mayors. "If we lose those people, the economy of the United States will simply go down the drain."