AUSTIN -- After angry student protests and nearly universal condemnation, the "catch an illegal immigrant game" planned by the Young Conservatives of Texas chapter at the University of Texas last week was ultimately canceled.
Now some Republican leaders are sorting through the fallout from what the event pitched as an effort to draw attention to the debate over immigration. In a Dallas Morning News opinion column this week, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) said the group's attempt to spur discussion over immigration missed the mark.
"I was concerned about the tone-deafness," Villalba said in an interview at KVUE's sister station WFAA. "This is a very serious and a very important issue that we face, and yet they were treating it as if it was a game, something that wasn't serious, and they were also treating human beings as objects."
After watching the news, Villalba said his seven-year old daughter surprised him with the question, "What's an 'illegal?'"
"I explained to her that an 'illegal' is a term that people use to describe someone who's broken the law, and people that break the law have to pay their dues to society. But we're talking about humans," said Villalba. "It's important that she recognize that we're talking not about objects but about people. And that's a problem, I think, in the current discussion that we have."
Immigration has become a major issue in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor. All four candidates have voiced a desire to repeal the "Texas DREAM Act," a state law which allows students brought to Texas illegally as children to qualify for in-state university tuition. Democratic candidate state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte argues the focus is misguided.
"The Texas DREAM Act that allows students to pay the same rate as the people that they graduated with from high school has been in effect for twelve years," Van de Putte told KVUE after filing her candidacy for lieutenant governor this week. "The rhetoric coming from the four lieutenant governor candidates for me was hurtful. I'm a sixth generation Texan, but I understand that we need common sense, bipartisan, real, meaningful immigration reform."
As the state's booming Hispanic population continues to grow, so will the political implications of immigration policy and rhetoric. Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition executive director Alejandro Caceres believes Republicans are well aware of the need for sensible immigration reform, but by taking hard-line policy positions they risk alienating Hispanic voters.
"A lot of us come from mixed-status families, so we're going to vote for the people that are going to help out our family," said Caceres. "We're going to make sure that if the Republicans don't do it, the Democrats will do it. If the Democrats don't do it, someone will do it. So if the Republicans decide to take this very anti-immigrant position, they will suffer in the next elections."
Caceres said that fixing an admittedly broken immigration system can be a bipartisan effort, and advocates for current undocumented immigrants may be willing to concede ground in areas such as the length of the legalization process for those who are currently undocumented if lawmakers agree to allow them to work and pay taxes without fear of deportation in the meantime. He said that getting there will require a change in rhetoric.
"For us to get to a compromise we have to stop with the myths. We have to stop with this idea that undocumented immigrants are criminals, they're here to take the U.S. benefits and that the border is insecure," said Caceres, who also said that many who cross the border illegally are fleeing social and political upheaval in their native countries. "If we can stop those three myths, if we can get to an actual conversation, then we can build a compromise."
Meanwhile, Villalba said the incident at the University of Texas can be a teachable moment for Republicans.
"We need to have a better understanding of these issues and really understand that Hispanics and the Hispanic community look to these kinds of issues as leverage issues, and issues that really shape the understanding of what the Republican party is," said Villalba. "We've got to be very careful in how we articulate our positions on this. We have to be very understanding of this community, but we also have to adhere to the rule of law and make sure that we stay true to our principles as Texans."