‘Piñata politics’ take center stage at Texas Tribune Fest

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro at the Texas Tribune Festival (Josh Hinkle/KXAN)

It was clear immigration would be one of the most talked-about topics at the Texas Tribune Festival from the get-go. As Gov. Rick Perry opened the weekend on Friday evening, some of the most passionate questions from audience members were about his border stance.

“We can’t begin to have a serious conversation about immigration reform until we secure our border,” Perry said, stressing the need for more law enforcement agents and a stronger, expanded fence along the U.S.-Mexican line

Clearly, GOP panelists would follow suit. In perhaps the most highly-anticipated event, Saturday morning’s packed conversation with San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and former Texas Soliticor General Ted Cruz pointed out the partisan bickering over immigration.

“Neither party is serious about solving (the issue)…(they) use it to scare people,” Castro, a Democrat, said as he labeled the feud “piñata politics.”

Former Texas Solicitor General and current U.S. Senate candidate Ted Cruz at the Texas Tribune Festival (Josh Hinkle/KXAN)

Castro has recently gained nationwide attention after speaking at the Democratic National Convention this month. He and his twin brother Joaquin – a state representative and Congressional candidate – were both noticeably close to President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama during that event.

Cruz – who also spoke at the Republican National Convention – has attracted a conservative following across the country this year during his heated primary fight against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for the state’s GOP U.S. Senate nomination.

Cruz’s argument – like Perry’s – centered on “serious” border security. But Castro pointed out the number border agents has doubled since 2004 and revenue for that fight has also doubled since 2007.

“Are they as secure as we want them to be?” Castro asked. “I would argue they are more secure than they ever have been before.”

Cruz criticized the president’s support of the DREAM Act – a bill to allow the children of illegal immigrants to stay in the country for a variety of reasons like college or the military.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, at the Texas Tribune Festival (Josh Hinkle/KXAN)

Supporters say amnesty would not result from the Act’s implementation but instead create social and economic benefits. Critics fear it could further illegal immigration.

“Bring it to the people and go through the democratic process,” Cruz said, suggesting the president has overstepped his authority regarding this matter. In June, the president announced that his administration would stop deporting young, undocumented immigrants who fit certain categories under the DREAM Act.

In a later panel previewing the upcoming Texas legislative session, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, referenced the state’s own form of Act – a 2001 law she helped write allowing children of illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition.

“It was good for business and had the support of the governor at the time,” Van de Putte said.

On the same panel, Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock – one of a handful of Hispanic Republicans in the state legislature at this time – spoke about his time as a Capitol staffer when that bill passed.

Rep. Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock, at the Texas Tribune Festival (Josh Hinkle/KXAN)

“Eleven years later, it’s a litmus test for something entirely different,” Gonzales said, pointing out the educational intent of the measure as opposed to its current immigration focus.

Van de Putte said lawmakers must consider the demographic changes in Texas during that time before making further immigration decisions.

“When people come to Texas, we should really be saying ‘Bien venidos, y’all!’” she added.

Her concern is with legislation deemed emergencies by Perry last session – namely a bill to require photo identification at the voting booth, which is now held up in the courts. She also referenced a failed bill to stop so-called sanctuary cities – places where governments do not enforce immigration laws.

Van de Putte said such measures – if introduced again – would “set a toxic tone” in the upcoming session and create too many distractions from other issues like education and health care.

Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, at the Texas Tribune Festival (Josh Hinkle/KXAN)

“You can’t rip Granny from you because Granny doesn’t have the papers to be here,” she said about possible deportation resulting from such legislation.

Another panelist, Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball – who is known nationwide for filing strong and often controversial immigration-related legislation – chimed in after that statement.

“Nobody wants to send Granny home,” Riddle said. “For crying out loud, I’m a grandmother of ten. We should talk about how we can do our citizens fair and treat them properly.”

Riddle further said she considered a “porous border” and undocumented people in the U.S. “safety and security threats.”

Like Riddle, Cruz said he supports immigration, if it is done the “correct” way. His father fled a Batista regime in Cuba where he was “tortured and almost beaten to death” before emigrating to the U.S.

“We need to be a nation celebrating legal immigrants,” he said.

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