News Column

Texas GOP Touts Guest Worker Plan

June 12, 2012

Shirley Jinkins and Eva-Marie Ayala

Barbed wire

Texas Republicans are touting their success in bringing the factions of their party together last week in Fort Worth to approve a new plank in the party platform aimed at effective changes in immigration policy.

They call their guest worker program the "Texas solution" and say it offers answers instead of "another litany of problems," said Brad Bailey, a member of the platform subcommittee that drafted the plan.

The proposal would provide a way for illegal immigrants to have legal status -- and possibly more important to the party right now, it could pull into Republican ranks conservative Hispanic voters who could not abide the harsh deportation policies of former Republican state platforms.

Under the new, gentler proposal, "We no longer call it 'illegal immigration,'" said Norman Adams, a Houston insurance broker who co-founded Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy a decade ago. "For the first time, the Republican Party actually offers a solution. In the past our only solution was for them to leave."

The plank offers conditions immigrants would have to satisfy to participate: pass a criminal background check, pay any immigration fine, carry private or workplace health insurance, waive government assistance, know English, pass a civics class and be subject to payroll taxes. But Adams said the requirements would not discourage illegal immigrants from applying.

"These people are scared to death now," he said. "They're afraid they'll get stopped for a bad taillight while they're taking their kids to school and get sent back.

"The average person that's here trying to survive and feed their family will come running to this program."

But critics say it would do little to provide actual answers.

'Not a real solution'

"It's just politics," said the Rev. Stephen Jasso of Fort Worth's All Saints Catholic Church, which has a largely Hispanic congregation. "They want to alleviate the problem because they know it's important, but they are coming up with a solution that is not a real solution."

If the platform is a sincere effort to help illegal immigrants, Bernice Rodriguez, a 32-year-old Mexican immigrant, said she applauds the effort. But she said she is skeptical and will be studying what the "solution" really means.

"I can't trust it immediately," said Rodriguez, who declined to give her immigration status. "It is known that Republicans are against help for the immigrant community."

Immigrants should be treated with respect and dignity, not used as a political ploy, she said.

"We are humans, and we are hard workers," Rodriguez said.

Other people questioned the practicalities of implementing such a program.

One requirement, for example, is that a temporary worker agree to carry private insurance or health insurance through the workplace.

But the state usually ranks high in the number of those uninsured, with about 25 percent lacking coverage, said Ed Sills, a spokesman for the Texas AFL-CIO.

"I'm not sure why an employer would be willing to hire a guest worker and provide insurance," Sills said. "Historically, these programs tend to create a subclass of workers who don't have any rights. If these workers were fully on the radar screen and paid at least minimum wage, then there wouldn't be a call for guest worker programs in the first place."

Sills also noted that the unemployment rate is still high and said it does not seem practical to bring in others to fill jobs with so many out of work.

Adams said 70 percent of illegal immigrants "are an underground workforce working under 1099 fraud now."

Employers illegally misclassify those workers as independent contractors rather than employees and issue them a 1099 IRS tax form. If they were legally working for employers and having payroll tax taken from their checks, "it would more than double the withholding and Medicare deductions without increasing the tax rate," Adams said.

"The Democrats could have passed immigration reform, but because unions have resisted, the Democrats have resisted it," he said.

Still, Republican hard-liners immediately assailed the "Texas solution" as another step toward amnesty and an open-border policy.

Katrina Pierson of the Grassroots Texans Network said softening of the party's stance on immigration from 2010 will make it harder for real changes to occur, such as reviving the so-called sanctuary cities bill, which would have stopped state aid to cities that prohibit officers from asking detainees about their immigration status.

The 2010 Republican platform called for denying healthcare to illegal immigrants except in emergencies, levying penalties against employers who knowingly hired illegal workers and eliminating day-labor centers.

"The same people who were calling for this 'market-based' solution are all the same people who want to keep undocumented workers here for their own financial interest," Pierson said, adding that she worries that the effort is just a move to attract Latino voters without producing real changes. "We'll see if the party will put their money where their mouth is and not just dangle carrots."

Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report.

Source: (c) 2012 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram