AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - As a Republican, Rep. Aaron Pena is expected to take a hard line on immigration. But as a Latino who represents a heavily Hispanic district along the U.S.-Mexico border, the South Texas lawyer finds some of the anti-immigrant proposals in the Legislature to be unfair and unnecessarily harsh.
Pena is among a handful of new Latino Republicans in the Texas Legislature, and they are taking a careful walk through the minefield of hot-button immigration and cultural wedge issues that are sure to spark debate, and possibly legal reforms, in the Texas Legislature this year.
Several of them are scheduled to meet as a group Wednesday with Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is helping lead a Latino outreach effort, aides said. Abbott's eventual advice on the legality of some of the immigration bills could be a key factor in what happens to them in the Legislature.
The Hispanic Republicans don't all share the same opinion on every bill. But with generally more moderate views on everything from English-only proposals to legislation that would deny birth certificates to illegal immigrants' children, the lawmakers are challenging the GOP to think in news ways about issues that stir Hispanic passions.
Pena, for example, thinks it's an awful idea to deny illegal immigrants the right to sue in state court. He said the measure, sponsored by GOP Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler, would invite unwarranted abuse against people, even if they are here illegally.
"It allows people to treat other people like animals, and it invites chaos," Pena said.
He opposes legislation that seeks to deny the rights of citizenship to people born in the U.S., and takes a dim view of "English only" bills, depending on how they're written.
"I wouldn't see the need for that in El Paso," Republican GOP Rep. Dee Margo said, referring to bills that might restrict the use of Spanish. Margo, whose grandfather was Hispanic, represents an El Paso County border district that is almost 60 percent Latino.
Berman, the Tyler Republican who has filed several bills aimed at illegal immigrants, said his ideas are popular among most of his fellow Republican legislators. He said the U.S. Constitution never should have been interpreted to allow the children of foreigners to be granted automatic citizenship and that states should be able to protect citizens from lawsuits filed by people here illegally.
But Rep. John Garza of San Antonio, worries that the heated rhetoric surrounding the immigration issue could hurt Republicans like him in 2012. Garza squeaked out a narrow, upset victory in November against a Democrat in a district that is 64 percent Hispanic.
"I have to be careful. My constituency is not all Republican," Garza said, adding that he wants the federal government - not the Texas Legislature - to enact immigration reforms.
"In my district, immigration was down on the bottom of the totem pole in terms of issues," he said. "We need to be inclusive if we want to gain the Hispanic vote."
Garza is among the lawmakers joining the Hispanic Republican Conference, which Pena chairs. The group, formed last week, plans to take positions on specific immigration bills and other issues if two-thirds of its members agree, Pena said. The group includes six members who identify themselves as Hispanic and three Anglos in districts that are at least 40 percent Hispanic.
Abbott, whose wife is Hispanic, will meet with the conference and swear them in as new members, Pena said. In past legislative sessions, Abbott informed legislators that some of the initiatives aimed at illegal immigrants represented unlawful interference with federal authority.
Abbott told The Associated Press that he hasn't been asked about the legality of the immigration bills this year but that he would give his opinion if asked.
"I haven't gotten any inquiries this time," he said.
While Hispanics have traditionally voted Democratic, Abbott and other Republicans said the election of several new Republican Hispanics - there were none two years ago - shows that the GOP and the growing Hispanic population share conservative values.
"As long as we stand for the values that will provide hope and opportunity, we'll be connecting both with core Republican constituents as well as attract many from the Hispanic community to the Republican Party," Abbott said.
Democrats aren't buying that argument.
"Pena and his friends are not only politically opportunistic, they're outright hostile to the Hispanic Texans they purport to represent," said Anthony Gutierrez, the state party's deputy executive director. "We need leaders with the courage to fight for us, not a Republican club pandering to us while its members stand right alongside the very people attacking our community."