Interview
"Being Latino and being a Democrat in Texas does not mean being progressive"
University of Houston professor Jason Casellas discusses in an exclusive dialogue with LPO how Latinos live and think in the state Republicans have governed since 1994.

Jason Casellas is a professor at the University of Houston and he specialized in Latino immigration and politics. He is the author of "Latino Representation in State Houses and Congress" and a member of the Texas Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. With a PhD from Princeton University, during his classes Casellas explains the transformation of Latino voters and studies its impact on Texas politics.

How is the phenomenon of immigration -legal and illegal- in the United States similar to and different from the rest of the world?

The phenomenon in the United States is similar to what is happening in other parts of the world, Europe for instance. The actors are almost the same. On the one hand, there are countries that have a very high life level and quality. On the other, there are people who want to go to those countries. Many people from Latin America, mainly from Venezuela, Cuba and Central America, want to come here because the United States is where you can work and have a better life. The difference is that here we have a very long border with Mexico that has always been a great problem due to illegal immigration, because it is very difficult to monitor. So the US has had a very divisive policy because of the political differences between Democrats and Republicans and the politicization of this issue.

Was it Trump who marked a break as they say?

Trump was not the first to politicize immigration, but when he ran for president in 2016, immigration was one of his central issues, the most important. During his presidency, we have seen Republicans being more severe about the wall and illegal immigration. But also, during the Obama presidency we had many deportations. That has been a consistent action both with Democrats and Republicans. And of course, we also see it with Biden. People do not talk about it so much now, but it exists.

You mention the border with Mexico. In this scenario, where does Texas appear?

Texas is a state with a large border with Mexico, and it was part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Many Texans who lived here were non-Mexican Texans and other were Latino Texans. It was always a very organic border, if you go to the Rio Grande Valley, you can see a very Latin American culture, they speak Spanish. Immigration policy on the border with Mexico has always been a "cut and thrust". However, what we see now is different, and I think it has been like this since 1994. Today the Republicans have the governorship in the state of Texas and lately, they have become stronger on the immigration issue. Especially with the wall. People talk more about it, much more than when the governor of Texas was Bush. They talked about it then, but in a different way. A solution was sought with a program so that seasonal workers could cross more easily. But these discussions do not exist today. Nowadays the main issue is border security.

Texas is a state with a large border with Mexico, and it was part of Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Many Texans who lived here were non-Mexican Texans and other were Latino Texans.

How does immigration influence elections?

The immigration issue in the elections is partisan. Broadly speaking, it could be said that Latinos in the United States are progressive on immigration. Between 80% and 90% of Latinos vote for liberal candidates and they support the most progressive immigration policy projects. However, in Texas it is not 90% but only 60% of Latinos who support this progressive immigration legislation. Especially those Latinos who are US citizens. We cannot say that Hispanics in Texas all think the same. For example, Latinos who live in the Rio Grande Valley supported Trump in 2020. The flow of Latino votes that the Republican Party obtained in that region with Trump as candidate was greater than in 2012 with Mitt Romney, a more moderate candidate.

Que Abbott no se confunda con los latinos

What are the differences between the integration of immigrants in European and American societies?

It is interesting because in the United States we have a common language: English. In the European Union, on the other hand, many languages are spoken and this makes integration difficult. However, here we have English and Spanish in some places. Latinos learn English more easily than other languages. Culturally you are exposed to English. At the same time, many immigrants of Latino origin go to cities like Miami, where Spanish is spoken almost in the entire city. We could say that Miami is a "Latin American country." Others will go to Kansas, but there everything will be more difficult: people do not speak Spanish and the population does not have as much experience with different cultures. Here, however, Latin culture is part of Texas. But since our country is so big, immigrants can choose their place. Other examples are Virginia and Washington DC. There is a very large Salvadoran community there, and many Salvadorans continue to choose this destination because they have relatives, lodging, and families who help them emotionally and financially.

Republicans with Latino support. Congresswoman Mayra Flores and Governor Greg Abbott.

Why do immigrants choose Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and not Austin to live in Texas?

In Texas there are four large cities. San Antonio is a Hispanic icon, Latinos choose it for its history. El Álamo and San Fernando Cathedral are Latin symbols. Dallas and Houston, on the other hand, are newer cities, and here the majority of Latino immigrants work in the oil industry. Austin does not have many Latinos because its workers are mostly government employees. Currently, there is a process of internal migration to Austin, mainly from California, but of Asians and white people. I would say that immigration depends a lot on the job opportunities the city offers.

Houston sadly ranks high in human trafficking cases within the United States. Why?

It is a very serious problem. When I was part of the Civil Rights Committee, we studied this issue and we made a report. Human trafficking is the modern form of slavery. We cannot imagine slavery these days, and we associate it with a historical and horrible fact. But we see it in a city such as Houston: big, international and cosmopolitan. These facts often go unnoticed by the large number of people from all over the world who live or study here. However, if this trafficking occurs in a small town, they can immediately identify it. For this reason, and because it is so close to the border, the problem exists.

Between 80% and 90% of Latinos vote for liberal candidates and they support the most progressive immigration policy projects. However, in Texas it is not 90% but only 60% of Latinos who support this progressive immigration legislation. However, in Texas it is not 90% but only 60% of Latinos who support this progressive immigration legislation.

Last June, 53 people were found dead in a truck in San Antonio. The victims were undocumented immigrants. Governor Abbott held President Biden responsible. What is the responsibility the state government and the national government have in these cases?

Regarding migration, the federal government is responsible. Since the immigration reform of 1986 there have been no major legislative innovations on this issue. There is a great institutional paralysis, "gridlock", to deal with it. Republicans and Democrats use this to win votes and blame each other. They would have to cooperate because the crimes are against the state of Texas. Laws should be proposed, for example, to expand the number of temporary or transitory workers. Today this is done in an ad hoc way. Some activities such as agriculture, harvesting and the beaches in summer need workers. Democrats are trying to push through these changes. Republicans delays these issues because first it is necessary to secure the borders and the security. And this leads to paralysis.

What do Texas Republicans and Democrats agree on regarding immigration policy and where do they differ?

They agree that the system does not work, that there are not enough judges, and that borders need control. But at the same time, things like the death of 53 people in a truck happen in the summer heat. America is a nation of immigrants. We should have a preventive system. There cannot be people dying this way.

[Democrats make Texas a priority and spend nearly $30 million more to win back the Latino vote]

Part of your research agenda focuses on the study of sanctuary cities. Can you explain it?

Sanctuary cities began to emerge in 2015. When an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco killed a woman the city protected his status so he could continue living there. During his presidential campaign at that time, Trump criticized the city for allowing that and wanted to punish it in some way. The only way was to do it as it was done in the 80s with road crimes related to alcohol consumption, and the age to buy alcohol. At that time, a lobby group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving pushed hard for this to happen. Trump's administration tell some sanctuary cities such as Miami Dade County in Florida that if the city cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more money would be sent for public expenses, roads and renewing police cars.

The Texas experience was different. The state government wanted to take state funds away from the cities just for being a sanctuary city. This happened in Travis County, where the city of Austin is located. Four years ago, a law banned sanctuary cities in the state of Texas. Each state is different. California has become almost entirely a sanctuary city... a sanctuary. Texas is exactly the opposite. It depends on the policy of each state, although there are some sanctuary cities despite being a Republican state.

Henry Cuellar, for example, is a Democratic legislator and he represents many Hispanic people in a rural Rio Grande Valley district despite being a Democrat. Cuellar was supported and financed by the National Riffle Association (NRA), nationally associated with the Republican Party. Their voters are very religious. They are practicing Hispanic Catholics who go to mass on Sunday and vote for the Democratic Party.

What were the changes around immigration during the pandemic?

The pandemic changed everything, including the migratory phenomenon, the border was closed and it was more difficult for migrants to cross it. When it reopened, America needed workers. Therefore, more illegal immigrants entered.

On the other hand, before the pandemic, when someone applied for asylum and was accepted, they could stay in the country and move within in. During the pandemic they were forced to return to their countries and that was a big problem. But also during the pandemic, the number of people requesting asylum increased, especially people from Venezuela and Cuba.

Human trafficking is a modern way of slavery. We cannot imagine slavery these days, and we associate it with a historical and horrible fact. But we see it in a city like Houston: big, international and cosmopolitan.

What would you say about immigration detention centers during the pandemic, with people getting infected, without vaccination and dying there?

It was a very troublesome thing. There were many people without vaccines in detention, because their countries of origin did not have access to vaccines. Many of these detention centers are run by private companies. There were many infections, violence against women and children, and mistreatment. It was a very sad thing. It got better, but there is still a lot to do. A trained service that treats everyone with dignity and state control over these centers is necessary.

In the border there is a nun named Sister Norma Pimentel, who does a lot to solve this problem. She had an interview with Pope Francis two years ago. She is trying to solve and improve things because it has been a big problem.

Could you briefly explain what "la Bestia" is?

It is a train that goes from Chiapas (southern Mexico) to the Mexican border with the United States and transports immigrants from Central America. People on that train escape from violence in their countries.

Is that violence in the countries of origin reproduced in the United States?

In some US cities such as Houston, this logic of "maras" and gangs can be seen. But there are very few cases. Essentially because those who migrate are escaping from that problem.

About Latinos and their representation in Texas politics: In the Texas Legislature constituted in 2021, 44 of the 80 members of the Democratic Party identify as Hispanic, while of the 100 Republicans, only 2 do so. What do you think is the best way to understand this phenomenon?

Southern US states such as Texas were Democratic after the Civil War. But that did not mean progressive. The Democratic Party had progressives and conservatives of Anglo-Saxon origin. There are hardly any white conservatives left in the Democratic Party. Nowadays, in other Southern states such as Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana, almost all Democratic representatives are African-American, while Republicans are white of Anglo-Saxon origin. In Texas, only 13 % of the population are African American, but 40% are Latino. They place African-Americans occupy in Alabama within the Democratic Party, in Texas is occupied by Latinos. There almost no white Democratic representatives in the Texas Congress.

Now, more Latinos are running for the Republican Party. It is something Republicans are trying to change. Mayra Flores won in a district on the border. However, in most Hispanic-majority districts, the representatives are Democrats. And in Texas they are Hispanic Democrats. But it does not necessarily mean progressives. They are two different things. That generates a tension between the Austin Democrats (progressives) and the Laredo Democrats (conservatives).

[A Republican wins in South Texas and she is the first Mexican to enter the Congress]

Henry Cuellar, for example, is a Democratic legislator and he represents many Hispanic people in a rural Rio Grande Valley district despite being a Democrat. Cuellar was supported and financed by the National Riffle Association (NRA), nationally associated with the Republican Party. Their voters are very religious. They are practicing Hispanic Catholics who go to mass on Sunday and vote for the Democratic Party.

What does it mean for a Latino to be conservative? Is it the same as for a white person?

Not necessarily. For a legislator, being "white and conservative" is almost a synonym with being a Republican. But for a Latino legislator this is not the case. Many conservative Latino legislators are from the Democratic Party. I always say the same thing: ideology correlates with partisan identity for white people, but not for Latinos.

Even with problems, in the United States immigrants can come and live the "American dream". This brings Latino immigrants who come to the United States closer to the ideas of conservative representatives. On the other hand, politicians on the left, like Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, are very critical of the United States. This is not well received in the Latino community that still believes in the American dream.

Where do Hispanics stand on social issues, guns and abortion?

Many Hispanics who live in rural areas like the Rio Grande Valley are conservatives. They have experience with guns, shotguns, and rifles. They are accustomed to have guns to take care of their homes and families, just like the whites. There is a saying that in Texas there are more guns than people.

Regarding abortion, there are differences around age. Young people are more "pro-choice" than older people. There are also differences depending on where they live: the famous urban-rural cleavage. However, most Latinos who are against abortion are not seeking to ban it outright. They want to impose restrictions, they are more moderated, they believe that abortion must not be easy to perform. They see it as immoral, "killing a baby". But at the same time they believe it should be allow in special situations.

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