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February 10, 2013

Immigration talks ramp up

AUSTIN, Texas — With nearly two million illegal immigrants and a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, Texas has more at stake than most states in the renewed push to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

Yet so far, Gov. Rick Perry and Republicans who control the legislature have been sitting this debate out.

They’re not resurrecting dozens of contentious immigration bills that roiled the statehouse in 2011. They’re not making the rounds on TV and radio to talk about President Barack Obama’s plan for legalizing immigrants. They’re not even saying the word “immigration.”

When Perry delivered his State of the State recently — his first since his failed presidential run — glaringly absent in the 37-minute speech was any mention of the issue at all.

The silence speaks to the sudden political shift in immigration since last fall’s presidential election, in which Hispanics voted Democratic by a nearly 3-to-1 margin and created a powerful incentive for Republicans to change their approach to this growing ethnic group.

In Congress, Republicans have softened their opposition to accommodating immigrants, and a bipartisan group of Senate negotiators unveiled a bill framework that includes a pathway to citizenship for those already in the U.S. so long as border security is beefed up.

But in Texas, the party has been left speechless in the Capitol. GOP leaders find themselves caught between traditional supporters, who feel swamped by illegal immigrants and want tough action, and a surging Hispanic population. Minorities accounted for nearly nine out of every 10 new Texas residents in the past decade, and the demographic shift could soon transform the politics in a state where Democrats haven’t won a statewide office since 1994.

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