AUSTIN (AP) — Immigration policy, something that Texas politicians have little control over, is shaping up as one of the major issues of the 2014 election cycle in Texas.
Republican operatives say the issue is the most important to their primary voters. That's probably why Houston Sen. Dan Patrick made it the center piece of his first television ad in his bid for lieutenant governor. But immigration law is a complicated issue, particularly for Hispanics in Texas, and Democrats see just as much opportunity in the issue as their conservative counterparts.
The focus of Patrick's ad is a law that allows the children of immigrants who entered the United States illegally to pay in-state tuition if they otherwise qualified as a Texas resident. Patrick incorrectly claimed that he was the only candidate for lieutenant governor who opposed the measure. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson also oppose the policy.
In a tough, four-way race like the one for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor the candidates feel compelled to run to the right to attract the support of tea party activists, even if that means opposing a policy Gov. Rick Perry defended on the presidential campaign trail as good for the Texas economy and compassionate to children.
Coincidentally, bickering over who opposes the law came as the Republican National Committee launched a permanent Hispanic outreach team in Texas.
"We will engage with voters in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities to strengthen our ties with the Hispanic community," said Jennifer Korn, RNC deputy political director for Hispanic initiatives. "We are committed to creating a permanent year-round ground game that will allow us to compete for every vote and will outlast any one candidate or campaign."
Attorney General Greg Abbott, who does not face a rightwing challenger in his bid for governor, used the occasion to talk about Hispanics share conservative values. An Abbott spokesman has tried to hedge the attorney general's position on the in-state tuition law, saying it is flawed, but won't say how or what should be changed.
"We have not seen Hispanics switching from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party," Abbott said. "This is a one-way street that we're driving on down."
A national Pew Research poll released last week, though, shows that most Hispanics disagree with the party on immigration. About 45 percent of Hispanics said illegal immigration by Hispanics living in the United States has improved the country.
More than 47 percent of people who trace their families to Mexico — who are the majority of Hispanics in Texas — said illegal immigrants have a positive impact. The community disapproves of what they consider a broken immigration system.
As Republicans watch their traditional Anglo base shrink, Republican candidates find themselves in a dilemma over whether to play the long or short game. To win in a 2014 primary, they must take a hard line on illegal immigration, yet to attract converts to their party in the long run, they must adopt a more nuanced position.
Democrats are seizing on the Republican's uncomfortable position. Almost two-thirds of Hispanic voters back Democrats and the party is committed to boosting turnout.
"Texas Republicans Dan Patrick and Jerry Patterson are fighting over which one can discriminate the most against immigrant children," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. "These Republicans like to call our children 'illegals' and deny them educational opportunities, but then somehow expect we'll turn around and vote for them."
On Wednesday, Mexican American Legislative Caucus Chairman Trey Martinez Fischer tried to drive a wedge between Republicans.
"It's time for George P. Bush and would-be Hispanic leaders within the Republican Party to join Gov. Perry and denounce this extremist, anti-immigrant agenda," he said.
Such a denunciation is unlikely, but it is equally unlikely the debate among Republicans will go away anytime soon.
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