Greg Abbott Should Put His Mouth Where His Money Is

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to the Alamo City Republican Women's Club at the San Antonio Country Club on Aug. 2.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s fundraising letter last week drew national attention for its Trump-like rhetoric regarding immigration and for its spectacularly unfortunate timing.

The letter began by saying “If we’re going to DEFEND Texas, we’ll need to take matters into our own hands.” 

DEFEND Texas from what? From a plot by “socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” and “the national Democrat machine,” which has “made no secret of the fact that it wants to turn Texas blue.”

The way they intend to do that, of course, is by doing nothing to stop the huge influx of immigrants (“the entire population of Galveston every three weeks”). The governor concluded, “This will lead to a disaster for Texas, both economically and politically.” In other words they want to turn it blue, ruinously, by turning it brown. 

The bad timing was that the letter was sent the day before and arrived in mailboxes days after a young North Texas ideologue drove hundreds of miles to El Paso, opening fire on Hispanic shoppers and others at a Walmart close to the border, killing 22 and injuring 24. 

Why do I say Abbott should put his mouth where his money is? Because it’s clear he didn’t send that fundraising letter to the people who give him the vast majority of his record-setting political haul.

This fundraising letter asked for amounts of between $35 and $2,500. But 70 percent of Abbott’s money comes from contributions of at least $10,000. He had already hit up those people in the last two weeks of June, following the legislative session during which state officials cannot drag the bag.

In that round, Abbott’s office bragged of raising $12.1 million, the largest post-session haul in his five years as governor. Some 36 of the checks were for six figures, including two for $1 million. 

Abbott, who is not up for re-election until 2022, now has more than $26 million in his campaign account, making his latest appeal to the less affluent for an “URGENT contribution” a bit much.

But we know the latest letter didn’t go out to the heavy hitters for another reason. The heavy hitters include two classes of rich folks. Both understand that the Texas economy, and therefore their wealth, depends on immigration. 

The first includes folks like Tilman Fertitta, who gave Abbott $450,000 during the 2018 election cycle. Fertitta’s $3 billion empire includes hundreds of restaurants that depend heavily on immigrant labor, including undocumented workers. After one of those restaurants was raided, Fertitta argued that the workers he had to fire would simply go to work for the competition or go on food stamps. 

Richard Weekley ($125,000) co-founded a giant homebuilding company, part of a sector that would be crippled without immigrant labor. At least a quarter of construction workers in Texas are undocumented. I’ve heard complaints from Anglo construction workers who say that they can’t get a supervisor’s job if they don’t speak Spanish. 

Texas Realtors gave Abbott $200,000, and the Associated General Contractors of Texas gave $191,000. 

“Texas lives on immigrant labor,” Jeff Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association, told the Houston Chronicle. “Our economy is the way it is partly because cost of living is cheap and the reason for that is labor is cheap.”

The second class of heavy political hitters are business leaders who aren’t in businesses that directly rely on immigrant labor – restaurants, construction, food processing, hotels and more. But they are smart enough to know that Texas’s “miracle” economy is at least as dependent on that immigrant labor as it is on low taxes and lax regulations. 

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a conservative think tank that is heavily influential with Texas Republican politicians. Yet in 2016 it issued a study by an economist that said that while illegal immigration has its costs for Texas – particularly in schooling – its benefits are greater. You can find the study here. Among the points made are these:

  • Texas is hospitable to immigrant workers. “An immigrant living in Texas is one-third less likely to be unemployed than those living in other states. This is particularly true for immigrants who possess low levels of education or work-related skills. Immigrants lacking a high school diploma perform better in labor markets than do Texas natives with similar levels of schooling, and are more likely to be in the labor force and to be employed.”
  • Our economy is supported by a large number of immigrants. “Immigrants comprise more than 20 percent of the Texas workforce, earning an average household income of $55,709, which is only slightly less than the average income for native Texans at $66,365. The average household size for immigrants is 3.5 persons compared to 2.5 for natives.”
  • Immigrants pay almost as much in taxes as natives of similar income, since they can’t escape sales or property taxes, even as renters. “As Texas has no state income tax, the losses we might expect to see to state revenue from immigrants receiving their pay under the table, do not occur.”
  • They aren’t here for welfare benefits. “In the end, the primary reason that immigrants are drawn to Texas, both from Latin America and elsewhere in the U.S., is due to the unique economic opportunities the state provides. The data show that low-skilled workers not only travel to Texas, but remain there, instead of opting for destinations with more generous social welfare programs.”

The point is that some of Abbott’s most generous contributors make their money by hiring immigrants no matter what their immigration status. Others make money not only by selling to immigrants, but also because immigrants help the economy in other ways. 

Contrast Texas with Maine. A fifth of its population is over 65 and the working age population is shrinking. Maine is more than 90 percent white and less than 5 percent Hispanic. A significant drag on the economy is that many people can’t find affordable childcare or elder care. One result is that many women who would like to be in the workforce cannot be.

A significant number of states are heading in the same direction. With low fertility rates among whites and without immigration, Maine is the nation’s future. With substantial immigration, Texas (and California) is the nation’s future.

Some of Abbott’s supporters are defending him by saying it’s only a fundraising letter. That’s what you do with fundraising letters, stir people up. It’s cynical, but that’s not new to Abbott. After all, during the 2017 legislative session, he was publicly blasting then-House Speaker Joe Straus for blocking the infamous bathroom bill while privately telling nervous big donors not to worry, Joe will kill it.

The problem is that our immigration system is, indeed, broken. There is not even close to a clear consensus among Democrats, much less between the two parties, on how to fix it. A solution depends on being able to honor our tradition of welcoming immigrants, not our other tradition, fear-mongering toward them. 

Trumpian language coming from the likes of Abbott only gets in the way of dealing with the problem. Such demagoguery will only give us continued political gridlock on the issue. It also risks giving us more El Paso Walmarts.

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