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Immigrant surge underscores Texas political divide

By Will Weissert

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 29 2014 5:59 p.m. MDT

This June 18, 2014, file photo shows U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents work at a processing facility in Brownsville,Texas.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

DALLAS — Texas Democrats say the solution for dealing with the thousands of immigrant children pouring into the country is a softer, more measured policy response, while state Republicans emphasize clamping down on the U.S.-Mexico border first and tackling everything else later.

Both sides agree a "humanitarian crisis" is unfolding, but the difference in how to frame the approach underscores deeper fissures on immigration, with each party declaring its view is the key to wooing voters among the state's booming Hispanic population.

The U.S. Border Patrol in South Texas has been overwhelmed for months by an influx of unaccompanied children from Central America. So, what might otherwise be political rhetoric for the parties may be put to a real-world test in an important election year.

Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott said a surge in youngsters arriving at the border was just the latest facet of a more complex problem.

"The challenges that we're dealing with today long predated the current crisis of the last few months and these challenges are not going to away unless and until the border is secure," Abbott said in a phone interview Sunday. "Most people in the country agree that the first step is to secure the border before anything else can be talked about."

At their state convention in Dallas this weekend, however, Democrats approved a party platform that endorses an "attainable path to citizenship" for people living in the U.S. illegally. They say doing so will help snap the Republicans' 20-year winning streak in statewide elections.

Just two weeks earlier, the Texas GOP removed from its party platform a plank that had passed in 2012 calling for a guest-worker program for immigrants in the country illegally and added language that prioritized securing the border.

Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who was re-elected to his post at the convention, said his party doesn't "believe in a guest-worker program. ... Those kinds of programs have always led to exploitation.

"If their only crime is to be here in an undocumented status, give them an opportunity to obtain their legal status," Hinojosa said.

Other top conservatives led by tea party-backed state Sen. Dan Patrick, the GOP lieutenant gubernatorial candidate, counter that most Texans, including Hispanics, are troubled by the flood of immigrants crossing the border illegally, and that a hard-line stance is the best way to ensure their political domination continues for another two decades.

Though neither party's platform has much beyond a symbolic value, the issue of unaccompanied children has helped ensure that immigration questions can't be ignored on the campaign trail.

Patrick has decried an "invasion" of immigrants crossing the border illegally and adopted the slogan "Secure Our Border." His opponent, Democrat Leticia Van de Putte, says it's not that simple and that Republican suggestions otherwise are merely an attempt to "score political points."

Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children, most from Central America, have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally.

"This visual image of someone sneaking through at night, trying to hide in the bushes and cross the river, that's not occurring," Van de Putte said. "These children, and many of the women with their infants, are crossing and asking to be detained."

President Barack Obama has promised to seek more than $2 billion to respond to the issue. And a Dallas County judge announced this weekend that up to 2,000 children could be transferred from overcrowded facilities in the border community of McAllen to his county by the end of July.

Abbott called the White House looking to secure additional federal funding "a good first step, but that alone is not going to erase months of misinformation and inaction that created this crisis in the first place."

Guarding America's borders is ultimately the federal government's responsibility, but Gov. Rick Perry recently authorized spending $1.3 million per week in state funds to beef up security on the border with Mexico.

The Democrats' gubernatorial hopeful, State Sen. Wendy Davis, has urged Perry — who is not seeking re-election — to convene a special legislative session to increase state funding for overtaxed border city and country officials.

Some conservative state lawmakers have clamored for a special session, too, but only to focus on securing the border.

Asked what a secure border might look like, Abbott said Sunday he didn't have a ready-made definition, but that achieving one was possible.

"If we can land people on the moon, if we can create iPhones and iPads," he said, "I think we can measure meaningful border security."

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