Texas GOP Representative Ground Shifts on Immigration

Texas House Member Who Opposed Bush-Era Revamp Is Crafting Current Bill, Selling It Back Home.

Rep. John Carter of Texas, right, shown in January with Speaker John Boehner, is helping to craft a bill and to guide it through the House.

BELTON, Texas—When George W. Bush, in his second term as president, called for an overhaul of immigration laws, Rep. John Carter said he couldn’t sign on. Mr. Carter argued over the issue with Karl Rove, a fellow Republican who was a top White House aide.

“We had a very strong disagreement, as friends can have,” Mr. Rove recalled.

Within the past couple of weeks, Mr. Carter was laying out a far different point of view to his central Texas constituents. Six years after his debates with Mr. Rove, Mr. Carter is not only backing a broad reworking of immigration laws but helping to craft a bill and to guide it through the House.

That is a significant change for Mr. Carter, 71 years old, who belongs to the House tea-party caucus and takes a conservative stance on most matters. The success of an immigration overhaul rests in large measure on how many other Republicans will join Mr. Carter in the House, where GOP opposition was one reason that no bill passed during Mr. Bush’s tenure.

Mr. Carter sees a way to honor the rule of law—a paramount value for him, in part because he spent years as a county judge—while treating legal and illegal immigrants humanely.

“There is a way that we can make people be responsible for their actions without being unkind to those people,” he told constituents here in late May.

Mr. Carter, now in his sixth term, says he wasn’t willing to consider broad changes to the immigration system when Mr. Bush pushed them, because he was too frustrated with the government’s inability to secure the border with Mexico.

“I was so mad about what was going on on the border…that I didn’t think there was any valid argument that we had stopped the flow” of illegal immigrants, Mr. Carter said in an interview in his district, just north of Austin.

Since then, Mr. Carter’s work on the House Appropriations Committee panel on homeland security, where he is chairman, has sent him repeatedly to the Southern border. He says he has seen new resources kick into effect. A beefed-up border patrol and new technology, combined with diminished job opportunities for illegal immigrants in a sluggish U.S. economy, have reduced the number of illegal crossings, Mr. Carter said.

Now, he says he wants to take action on an overhaul before the economic recovery draws new illegal immigrants, and he says the border will never be “absolutely secure.”

He also sees a need to expand guest-worker programs to bring in low-skilled workers, which would help construction companies, among others, trying to respond to his district’s population growth.

Both the House and Senate legislation would expand visas for lower-paid workers as well as bring in more high-skilled foreign workers for companies such as computer maker Dell Inc.,based in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, which is in his district.

Mr. Carter hasn’t persuaded everybody that Congress should move forward. Some constituents remain unhappy that both the Senate legislation and a still-uncompleted House bill, which Mr. Carter is helping to draft, would open a path to citizenship for many of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants, an aspect of the bill that Mr. Carter didn’t dwell on in several public appearances late last month.

Some in his district, including retired police officer Michael Fox, approve more of freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), who doesn’t support allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens.

Mr. Fox, a Georgetown resident and registered Republican, said he was bracing for Congress to pass an immigration overhaul. “They’re going to shove it down our throats and American taxpayers will have to buck up and pay more,” he said.

To honor the rule of law, Mr. Carter says, the House legislation would likely require illegal immigrants who want legal status to declare in court that they had broken the law. The bipartisan Senate bill doesn’t include that provision.

Some of Mr. Carter’s constituents are coming to an uneasy acceptance that immigration laws will be changed.

“While I’m not anxious to have a mass deportation of people—it’s not realistic—we can’t just grant amnesty and say, ‘Hey, you’re here illegally, it’s OK,’ ” said Belton resident Gary Tolman, a retired lawyer who considers himself a conservative.

Still, he said he could accept a 15-year path to citizenship, the timeline envisioned in Mr. Carter’s bill. “I could live with something like that.”

this article  appeared on the WSJ om 6/8’13

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