AUSTIN – Republican George P. Bush once bucked his own party’s platform by voicing support for a law that gives in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants. He described the policy in 2014 as “really a nominal cost for the state.”
Now, Bush wants the tuition benefits to end.
He also said he hopes to overturn a longstanding court decision that provides free public education for undocumented immigrant children.
And he’s called for Texas to take the extraordinary step of declaring a border “invasion” so state police and soldiers can begin turning migrants back to Mexico.
“Let’s not mince words – Texas is being invaded,” the state’s land commissioner said in a recent fundraising email.
Campaign strategists see Bush’s hardening immigration stance as a Hail Mary to gain ground against Attorney General Ken Paxton ahead of their May 24 runoff election.
But they question whether Bush can convince voters he’s tougher on the border than Paxton. The two-term incumbent has a history of repeatedly suing the feds over immigration policy. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Paxton last summer, citing in part a strength on border security.
“I just don’t know anyone in the Republican party who believes Paxton has been insufficiently conservative on immigration,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political consultant based in Austin.
Bush said a “dramatic surge in illegal immigration” has shaped his viewpoint.
“I believe in a zero-tolerance policy for those who come into our country illegally,” he said in a written statement. “We will not reward criminal behavior in this state.”
Bush’s latest statements turn up the temperature on a campaign strategy that’s made cracking down on illegal immigration a central focus. He has criticized Paxton for not doing enough to support Gov. Greg Abbott’s multibillion-dollar border security operation and highlighted his agency’s land offering for a state-funded border wall. In one of his most well-known campaign ads, Bush sports sunglasses as he rides a red ATV along a section of the border fence.
In addition to ending in-state college tuition for undocumented students, Bush said that if elected, he would seek to overturn Plyer vs. Doe, a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says public schools can’t charge tuition to undocumented children. Abbott faced backlash from immigration advocates and educators last week when he suggested the state may challenge the ruling.
“As the son of a legal immigrant, I saw first-hand what the multi-year process looks like to enter this country legally,” Bush said in a statement to The Dallas Morning News this week, referring to his mother, who is from Mexico. “We must eliminate the magnet policies attracting people to enter our country illegally.”
By embracing the “invasion” declaration last month, Bush pushed further to the right of many Republicans.
Abbott, a former attorney general, has resisted the idea that he warns could open up Texas state troopers to federal prosecution. Even Paxton has shied away from loudly endorsing the concept promoted by former Trump administration officials.
Constitutional scholars view it as legally suspect, given that border enforcement falls to the federal government. Paxton’s office has been asked to weigh in on the legality, but has yet to issue an opinion.
Democrats have denounced the invasion rhetoric as dangerous. A mass shooter who killed 23 people in El Paso in 2019 wrote that he intended to stop the “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” according to authorities.
Bush has sought to distinguish his approach, saying cartels are driving an invasion, not migrants.
Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, chalked up some of Bush’s moves to “desperation” as polls put Paxton ahead.
“If you’re not able to outflank Paxton on the far right, at least join him there,” he said.
The state’s reddest voters usually decide low-turnout runoff elections, and public polling shows securing the U.S.-Mexico border is their top priority. The focus on immigration is only expected to intensify in the runup to this month’s election as the Biden administration plans to roll back a pandemic policy, known as Title 42, that’s been used to quickly expel migrants.
GOP voters may have a hard time seeing Bush as a tough-on-immigration candidate when he comes from a family known for taking a more pragmatic approach, said Jason Villalba, chief executive officer of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and a former Republican state representative.
Bush’s uncle – former President George W. Bush – has advocated for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and other “compassionate conservative” policies that would be disqualifying in today’s GOP, Villalba said.
“People just perceive that George P. Bush must be cut from the same cloth, whether or not he is or isn’t,” Villalba said. “By articulating this position that is a very strident, far-right style position, it doesn’t ring of authenticity.”
Bush has been working to distinguish himself from his politically famous family. In a campaign ad released this week, Bush said the race isn’t “about my last name – it’s about Ken Paxton’s crimes.” Paxton is facing an FBI investigation after his own top aides accused him of bribery and abuse of office.
Paxton is at the center of at least one other scandal, a seven-year-old indictment for securities fraud. He has denied any criminal wrongdoing.
But a recent poll by Villalba’s group found that 2 in 5 Republican primary voters would never vote for Bush – the majority of them because of his family connections.
Paxton’s campaign, for its part, has said that Bush “can’t be trusted to keep his ‘story’ straight on illegal immigration, let alone secure our border.”
Still, Bush’s immigration policies are generating some of his most prominent supporters. He’s won the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union representing some 18,000 agents. Former GOP state Rep. Dan Flynn said he backs Bush in part because of his willingness to engage on immigration issues.
“When it was time to go down and help on the border, he rode with us in fast boats, flew in helicopters with us,” said Flynn, who used to chair a defense and veterans committee. “I find him to be a Texas-first guy.”