State, federal lawmakers aim for bipartisan immigration solutions


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHAEL MOORE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on April 24, 2013 at 6:39 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 24 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- In deadlocked Washington, D.C., four Republicans and four Democrats known as the "Gang of Eight" senators are hoping to break the stalemate over immigration reform.
Their bill includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if certain border security criteria are met first. Exactly how that would work has been the subject of hearings this week on Capitol Hill. 
"How can we have any confidence that the border will be secure and that any trigger will be meaningful?" Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
"We would be continuing to look at all the measures I indicated to you," Napolitano later responded. "We would be deploying the technology plans that we have submitted to the Congress." 
At the same time, a handful of immigration related bills are making their way through the 83rd Texas Legislature. One is a bipartisan measure authored by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas) that would create a driver's permit specifically for undocumented immigrants. 
Dubbed the "Safe Driver" bill, HB 3206 would require applicants to pass a criminal background check and driving test, as well as submit their fingerprints in order to obtain the permit. Alonzo says it would look different from a regular driver's license, and could not be used as a form of identification for federal purposes, such as air travel.
"If they're driving without a license, they don't know the rules of the road," Alonzo said. "If they don't know the rules of the road, they can cause accidents, and we don't want that to happen."
The bill has earned the backing of major business groups including the Texas Association of Business, who believe the bill's requirement that permit holders maintain fiscal responsibility would lead to fewer uninsured drivers on Texas roads.
The bill has also gained the support of several House Republicans, as well as that of Houston-based conservative immigration reform advocate Norman Adams.
At the same time, some have raised questions about the bill's possible unintended side effects.
"Driver's licenses are used for more than just driving. They're used to apply for government benefits, open bank accounts, and even to register to vote," said Travis County Republican Party spokesperson Andy Hogue. "So while our state party platform favors giving lawful immigrants equal opportunity to participate in American life, we strongly oppose all illegal immigration loopholes."
"They long to have a driver's license," said Esther Reyes, director of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition. "They want to be a part of this society. They want to continue to contribute. They want to come out of the shadows."
While she says lawmakers in the nation's capital should continue to work toward reducing the backlogs and wait time for those applying for citizenship, Reyes says talk at the state and federal level has been promising. 
"The gang of eight, four senators are Republican, four senators are Democrat," said Reyes. "I think that that's an important sign about the future of both parties recognizing that this is something that needs to be done and that both parties need to contribute to this."
An outspoken advocate for increased security along Texas' border with Mexico, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples argues the overall focus should remain on border security. His suggestions include tripling the amount of "boots on the ground," implementing "strategic fencing" that respects private property rights, and increasing the amount of technology brought to bear.
"I don't think it's unreasonable to have as a prerequisite for obtaining any type of certification for the state of Texas that you be in the state lawfully," said Staples. "I think the fact that we're focusing on this takes pressure off of Washington to act. The reason that we're even in this situation today is because our federal government has been unable or unwilling to have common sense reforms."
Alonzo says he's confident that the bill has the votes to clear the House State Affairs Committee. As of Wednesday, HB 3206 was pending in committee.