A Democratic congressman and a Republican diplomat agreed Friday that immigration reform must focus less on rhetoric and more on its potential impact to U.S. and Texas economies.

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) and Antonio Garza, formerly U.S. ambassador to Mexico under President George W. Bush, touched on this and many points during “The Future of Immigration” panel discussion at University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus. It was part of a two-day series of panels organized by The Texas Tribune. Evan Smith, Texas Tribune’s co-founder and CEO, moderated Friday’s event. Programming continues on Saturday.

Castro and Garza said political discourse about immigration has shifted in the last 20 years to a harsher tone.

This has resulted in pieces of approved and proposed legislation that pose hazards to parts of the economy supported by undocumented immigrants, they said, and to cross-border trade relationships.

Whatever happens to immigrants in the near future, especially undocumented immigrants, Smith said, could have a grand effect on the state’s economy, health care, social services and politics, given their numbers:

  • About 17 percent of Texas’ population, 28 million people, are immigrants;
  • Another 15 percent of the state’s population is American-born, but has at least one immigrant in their family;
  • Approximately 1.6 million residents in Texas are undocumented.

Garza said the amount of business that Texas and Mexico do with each other, $178 billion worth in trade in 2016, cannot be underestimated.

“Not only are we an immigrant state, we’re a free trade state,” Garza said. “We have a demographic that is very global, largely Mexican, but we have an economic engine in this state that is driven in large part by the relationship we enjoy with Mexico.”

But if Texas and the U.S. have enjoyed a relatively strong relationship with Mexico and Latin American all of these years, Smith asked, why has there been a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric recently?

Garza replied the U.S. is joined by other countries in the world where the native population seems concerned about how the increased flow of immigrants affects their services and unemployment.

“People seem to have a discomfort with an outward-looking sense of their role in the world, and a discomfort with what I call ‘otherness,’” he added. “It’s really been in the last few years you’ve seen a shift on immigration.”

Castro agreed, saying in every generation, many Americans have trouble accepting and embracing arriving immigrants and their traditions.

(From left) U.S. Rep Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) listens to former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza respond to a question at a symposium on immigration at University of Texas at San Antonio – Downtown Campus.
U.S. Rep Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio) listens to former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza (right) respond to a question at the Texas Tribune’s immigration symposium. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

But most Texans, particularly political leaders, seemed more accepting of immigrants in 1990s and early 2000s than they do now, Castro said.

He noted how then-Gov. George W. Bush rejected fellow conservatives’ calls for pushing any measures similar to Proposition 187 in California.

California voters approved Prop 187 in 1994, controversial at the time for setting up a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibiting undocumented residents from using certain public services.

But in recent years, more states have enacted or considered laws that many people consider anti-immigrant, such as Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities bill,” Castro said.

“I do kind of see Texas going down that ugly road that some other states have already traveled,” he added.

But for the most part, anti-immigrant rhetoric, chiefly from candidate-turned-President Trump, has been in tone rather than action, Garza said.

“Tone can do a bit of damage,” he said, adding that Trump or any other candidate or elected official is free to talk about immigration and how that relates to border security.

But building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to severely curtail overall immigration, coupled with demonization of immigrants, is unnecessary and costly in many ways, Garza said. “It does damage to us as a country, and it does damage to the relationship we’ve enjoyed [with Mexico].”

(From left) Texas Tribune Co-founder and CEO Evan Smith, U.S. Rep Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza participate in a conversation on immigration at University of Texas at San Antonio – Downtown Campus.
U.S. Rep Joaquín Castro (D-San Antonio), and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza (right) talk about the importance of a healthy Mexico-U.S. relationship. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Castro said a border wall is symbolically not representative of American beliefs, nor is it practical because of how it could split private properties, ruin ecological systems, and disrupt trade.

“Also, there’s been this almost complete lack of recognition among some on the right that the border is more secure than it’s ever been,” he added.

Castro said immigration reform should include reasonable border security, and a comprehensive path to citizenship. He said he still hopes Congress will approve protections in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Even as a conservative, Garza said he supports preserving DACA. He and Castro said Congressional Democrats and Republicans have a chance to show the world how far the U.S. is willing to go to show how it appreciates nearly 1 million undocumented immigrants who are trying to build lives for themselves.

“It gives us as a country an opportunity to make a much louder statement, as to our commitment to these 800,000 generally educated, entrepreneurial people that very much want to be part of these communities and society,” Garza said.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.