Brad Bailey stalked restroom entrances for days at the Republican National Convention before he finally met Ann Coulter. A blond, seafood restaurateur from Houston who looks like he should be ensconced in a cubicle somewhere selling life insurance, Bailey immediately started in on her. Over the next few minutes, amid a flutter of immigration literature and brochures, Bailey said the word “solution” a lot. His big pitch: Immigration policy is broken. Let’s do it how we do it down in Texas.
“As a border state, we understand the problems,” Bailey recalls telling Coulter. “Just like Arizona. But we believe in providing solutions, not complaining.” Coulter, who’s vociferously defended Arizona’s border laws including SB 1070, then did something surprising. She agreed with him. And so, it turned out, did most other delegates at RNC convention, who by a two-third votes later enshrined Baily’s “Texas solution” into the party’s platform.
First adopted by Lone Star state Republicans at their state convention last June, Baily’s plan calls for a guest-worker program. Of course, to be eligible for the program, immigrants must self-fund any participation fees, pass a full criminal background check, secure their own private health insurance, waive any public assistance, exhibit proficiency in English, complete a rather ambiguous-sounding “American civics class,” before, finally, agreeing to be biometrically tracked. “I agree the qualifiers are too strident,” Bailey sighed.
But for a party whose standard bearer has called for “self deportation,” this is a considerable departure. Consider as well the distance the party platform has traveled on immigration since its 2010 version. “One nation, one flag, one language, one loyalty,” the immigration passage began, before establishing that dual-citizenship doesn’t jive with the American aesthetic. “There can be no divided allegiance. Anyone who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.” In the new party platform there is no mention either of “illegal aliens,” a group previously juxtaposed with “potential terrorists” and “organized crime.”
Yet getting even this far was not easy for today’s GOP. As Baily and like-minded Texan Republicans took off for the National Convention in Tampa Bay, sinking $20,000 into the trip, others back home doubted that offering such a guest worker program could overcome the effects of such other G.O.P policy prescriptions of the season, such as voter ID laws, and demanding the cessation of “sanctuary cities” that don’t enforce federal immigration laws. “If I’m a Hispanic, I would say, ‘We haven’t gotten ours,’” said Steve Murdoch a renowned demographer at Rice University. “‘Republicans aren’t on my side.’”
There were also Republicans who bravely argued that immigration policy really didn’t matter that much to Latino voters. Many in Texas perceive a causal relationship between George W. Bush’s strong performance among Hispanics in 2004 and his calls for comprehensive immigration reform. But McCain marched with immigration policies similar to Bush’s, and got walloped among Latinos, possibly because he did so badly overall.
Baily also found himself arguing with Republicans who said that Latino voters were still too scarce to matter. Sure, the majority of Texans may be Latino by 2030. But historically, Latinos have had some of the lowest turnout rates of any group, and many are still too young to vote. In 2010, Latinos accounted for 16 percent of the population, but only 7 percent of voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. In Texas, though Hispanics make up 38 percent of the state’s population, their representation at the polls has never eclipsed 20 percent during presidential cycles, according to exit polls. So maybe there was no actual need for the G.O.P to embrace Bailey’s plan, or so some said.
Heedless, Bailey arrived in Tampa and melted into the Republican masses, immediately glad-handing. But Bailey had a problem. Though a Texas delegate in the Republican Party, he wasn’t one on the national level. So Bailey, without a way to address the entire Republican brood, began tracking stray delegates to the restrooms to brief them on Texas’s immigration platform. “I talked with anybody and everybody,” Bailey said, telling people: “Our party’s just been horrible on immigration in the past.” But aligned against Baily were countervailing forces, led by Ken Kobach, Kansas secretary of state. He would be Bailey’s dueling partner for four days.
Kobach wanted to enshrine Arizona’s immigration’s laws, which he’d partly authored, in the 2012 Republican platform. Bailey, who’s worked alongside Hispanics for years at his seafood joints, said Kobach didn’t get it. His policies, in a way, demonized immigrants. “They’re not thugs like Kobach describes,” Bailey said. Ultimately, Kobach got his way. The platform said Arizona-style laws should be “encouraged, not attacked” and called on the federal government to dismiss its lawsuits against the legislation.
But, in a surprising turn, Bailey got his way too. The platform recommends a “legal and reliable source of foreign labor where needed through a new guest worker program.” -provided, again, that they agree be “biometrically tracked,” secure their own private health insurance, speak proficient English and all rest. The apparent contradiction in tone exemplifies just how, shall we say, bifurcated the Republican Party has become on immigration.
One Tuesday morning at a Houston coffee shop, Bailey tried to muddle through the evident confusion. He showed up to the interview 30 minutes early, and was leafing through immigration reports and Texas Solution brochures when I finally arrived. He handed me a brochure, though I hadn’t asked for one. There’s a big star shining from the center of the pamphlet’s cover. Throughout the course of the conversation, it became clear how unlike Bailey is from many Texas Republicans, or Republicans in general. And just how new he is to politics.
It was deeply refreshing. He contradicted a local screed, and said he abhors calls for birthright citizenship. He said he didn’t agree with his party’s state chairman, Steve Munisteri, who’s been busy hiring a few Spanish speakers as part of an “outreach” program “I don’t care how much money we spend on outreach,” said Bailey, “we’re not going to get to any Hispanic until we solve the immigration problem.” But mostly, drinking coffee that morning, Bailey talked solutions.