Joel Goza, Harvey Clemons Jr., and Michael Emerson work together with the Houston Coalition for Immigration Reform, a coalition that began three years ago to bring together business groups, religious organizations, grassroots activist and legal experts to work together for a unified vision for Immigration Reform. This blog is part of a three-piece series where they will be reflecting on their experience working for immigration reform on the front lines of Houston, TX.
One little known fact about Houston is that it was the only major city in the South to integrate non-violently. A meeting was held in a downtown hotel with key African-American leaders – preachers, business owners, barbers, undertakers – and the business and political power players from Houston’s white establishment. In that meeting it was determined Houston would integrate silently and sit-ins would end. No newspaper articles, no television cameras. They were simply going to change the rules of the game; and they did, and there was no violence. It was a meeting that represented how Houston politics happen, provide a room, bring together community leaders, business interests and politicians, and get a deal done. Such meetings certainly make for strange gatherings, but at critical junctures in our city’s history this mixture has proven to be a winning cocktail.
This past May, I attended the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in DC where I was asked to describe the atmosphere in Texas of the immigrant community and immigration reform movement. I live in a 99% Latino neighborhood in the shadow of downtown Houston, and for better or worse I have worked on immigration reform for the past 3 years. Nonetheless, I found the question difficult to answer. The immigration reform movement, in my mind, was suffering from a disorienting case of vertigo in the aftermath of heart-wrenching failures to pass the Dream Act and in the face of the growing hostility towards immigration reform in both the newly elected state and national legislative bodies. Having time now to watch how things played out during our state’s legislature secessions, perhaps some things are clearer to me now than they were only a couple of months ago. What has become clear in Texas is that the stagnation of the immigration reform movement has very little to do with not knowing what to do and almost everything to do with a lack of political will to pass legislation on matters where both sides of the aisle find common ground.
We began working three years ago to bring together community, religious, and business leaders to pursue a common vision of immigration reform. At that time, the easy-to-anticipate chasm between predominately Republican business interests and predominately Democratic grassroots organizers was a defining reality. Business interests pushed guest worker programs. Grassroots organizers demanded amnesty. As the years passed and the desperation increased from both parties to find a workable solution, the gap between the grassroots and the grass-tops (as we call them) shrank. At least at this moment and on this issue, both saw their well-being as interconnected. Politics makes strange bedfellows.
The common purpose between the grassroots and grass-tops revealed itself through the advocacy work during the 2011 State Legislature. The Republican sweep in the 2010 election provided the State House a super-majority and the Senate only a few votes less than a super majority. The list of anti-immigration bills was extensive and grassroots organizers worked feverishly, successfully stopping the most damaging bills in the Senate during the first legislative secession. This summer, Presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry called for special legislative sessions with the expressed intent of passing Arizona-like immigration policies. For these sessions the rules of the game would be different and the Senate would run by simple majority and Democrats lacked the ability to block any proposal fully backed by the Republicans. Doom and gloom was the word on the street. Yet, in stepped the grass-tops, CEOs from a leading grocery store chain and a leading homebuilder, to argue the immigrants’ case. In short, the CEOs argued before the Republican dominated Senate that Arizona-like legislation would kill the Texas economy much the same way it killed Arizona’s. The proposed legislation never reached the floor for a vote.
It is unclear what role the CEOs played in stopping the bill. It is unclear if the State Republicans were sincere in their desire for anti-immigrant bills and sincerely ignorant of the central roles of immigrants to the Texas economy. Perhaps their heated rhetoric concerning immigration enforcement was nothing more than pandering to secure the anti-immigrant vote. What is clear, however, is that the predominately Republican business interests and predominately Democratic grassroots worked towards the same end: stopping anti-immigrant legislation.
I began my response to the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast by recalling a time in my city’s history when community, business, and political leaders sat around a table together and provided a more just way to live for an entire city in an effective manner. I recalled this time because I think that such a table, with such leaders still has the potential to produce meaningful and workable ways of addressing our state and nation’s broken immigration system and thereby providing a better way of living for cities across America. In Houston in particular and Texas at large, business and community leaders are already at the table working towards common ground on this issue. What is missing is elected officials with the courage to represent our city and state wisely on this issue. Ignorance is not the issue. Fear of losing the anti-immigrant vote is.
Texas elected officials know that the border town of El Paso is one of the safest major cities in the nation; that providing access to legal work to students and veterans through the Dream Act will make our inner-city communities safer and our economy more productive; and that we need the potential tax revenue generated by immigration reform that moves dollars from the underground economy into the American economy. It is not knowledge that Texas congressional leaders lack, it is the basic courage, integrity, and goodwill necessary to lead common sense immigration reform policies forward. We pray that God will provide our congressional officials courage, integrity, and goodwill on this issue, for that too would be a winning cocktail for immigration reform.