By Brandi Grissom / Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - A couple of lawmakers want to know whether Texas can punish employers who hire undocumented workers and prohibit cities from adopting so-called sanctuary policies.
"We need to make sure that we uphold our laws," said state Rep. Frank Corte Jr., R-San Antonio.
Corte and state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, sent Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott two letters earlier this month, asking him to rule whether anti-immigration measures similar to ones adopted in Arizona and Oklahoma, would meet constitutional muster here.
Last year, several Republican lawmakers proposed a smorgasbord of anti-immigration bills, but nearly all of them failed after the attorney general said they would violate the constitution or overstep federal authority. House leaders had asked Abbott to review all the proposals after they were filed.
Corte said it would be nice to know before the 2009 legislative session what authority Texas has to enforce immigration laws.
"I'd hate for us to spend a bunch of time debating something we don't have clarity on," he said.
In one letter, Corte and Patrick asked whether Texas could adopt a measure similar to one in Arizona that penalizes companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers.
The Arizona law allows the suspension and revocation of business licenses for companies that employ undocumented immigrants.
The other letter asks whether Texas lawmakers can adopt a policy that prohibits cities from barring police from turning undocumented immigrants over to federal agents.
"I think if we have laws that aren't being upheld, laws that are not being enforced, we need to do that," Corte said.
Police Chief Greg Allen said El Paso is not a sanctuary city and that his officers do hand over to federal officials undocumented immigrants who have broken the law.
But, he said, tracking down undocumented immigrants, is not the department's primary concern.
"We don't have the staffing; we don't have the expertise" to enforce federal immigration laws, Allen said, adding that to do so would take valuable time and resources away from fighting crime in the city.
Ray Adauto, executive vice president of the El Paso Association of Builders, said the federal government already levies steep fines from employers caught with undocumented workers.
The association, he said, urges builders to comply with the law and ensure that subcontractors they use hire legal workers.
Adding another layer of state penalties, he said, wouldn't necessarily stop companies that are determined to break the law.
"I think there's enough labor force right now with the slowdown in the marketplace that people don't need to go out and hunt for people of that nature," Adauto said.
State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said the nation needs one good federal immigration system, not a bunch of bad ones developed by individual states.
Immigration policy, he said, should be left up to the federal government.
"Lets face facts," Shapleigh said. "The U.S. needs a vibrant labor force in technology, health services, construction and agriculture. Immigrants have shouldered that burden for years."
Brandi Grissom can be reached at email@example.com; (512) 479-6606.