The Texas Congressman Fighting for Immigrant Rights

The Texas Congressman Fighting for Immigrant Rights

From left: Reps. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Kwame Canty, from the office of Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, participate in a "hands up" protest on the House steps of the Capitol, December 11, 2014.

SourceTom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Why you should care

Because some politicians’ careers will be made as they shake their fists at Trump.

The crowd at Kidd Springs Recreation Center is so big that a few dozen attendees must stand. When the town hall ends, the Democratic congressman for Texas’ 33rd District and organizer of the event, Marc Veasey, is mobbed by audience members. His 6-foot, 2½-inch frame looms above the ruck. It’s been eight days since Donald J. Trump was inaugurated as president, and Veasey is standing amid a group of people terrified of what the new POTUS means for them.

Spanning Dallas County and Tarrant County, Veasey’s district, drawn in 2011, resembles a spider connected by one leg to a butterfly. Over two-thirds of the 740,323 people in the district are Hispanic or Latino. According to Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants comprise 7 percent of the Dallas–Fort Worth metro area population — over twice the nationwide percentage. The median household income is $39,246; over one in four adults have not entered high school. And yet its border is barely a 30-minute walk from that of Highland Park, the famously donor-rich bubble that Mother Jones called “the most enthusiastically Republican enclave in the country.” This election, Dallas County was the only one to vote blue within a three-hour driving radius.

Veasey’s represented this district since its inception, and last year he was re-elected for his third term with a 47.4 percent margin. The 46-year-old is best known for supporting immigrants and low-income workers, and has recently been in the news for fighting voter ID laws. A member of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Immigration Reform Task Force, he is among the original co-sponsors of the DREAM Act, which supports undocumented immigrants who enter the country as minors, and the Reuniting Families Act, which allows LGBT citizens to sponsor permanent partners for residency. He’s pushed for Americans with noncitizen parents to receive federal financial aid for college and to alleviate the costs of naturalization.

For many of Veasey’s voters, aggressive immigration policy work is the top priority. After the election, he’s only more energized, he tells me. “We’re going to continue to ride the bus, continue to set up in front of grocery stores, [letting] people know, if you’re having problems with immigration, then call us, we’re available.”

He’s also a minority … he understands about the struggle for justice and equality.

Diana Radilla, DREAMer

Right now, notes Illinois Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez, “not everyone has put in the time to build those relationships and … foment that trust” with immigrant communities. “[Veasey] has, and it is so valuable right now.” Veasey’s district is filled with people like Diana Radilla, a DREAMer who speaks at the summit. She tells me she knows Veasey is “not going to turn his back on us.” Because “he’s also a minority,” she says, “he understands about the struggle for justice and equality.”

Veasey doesn’t frame immigration solely around humanitarianism. Armed with statistics, he speaks of immigrants’ contributions to the economy, adding that “fear itself hurts the economy”: People unafraid of sudden deportation are more likely to invest in housing, he argues, recalling one woman who told him that since Trump was elected, her parents, in the country illegally, would not go out to eat. He says the local business community is largely supportive of the immigrant community, regardless of their citizenship status.

This attitude is far from universal. Robert D. Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and a Conservative economist, agrees that low-skill immigrants help upper-class Americans, but contends that “the bottom 50 to 70 percent of workers are hurt.” Yes, Atkinson says, mass deportation would lower the GDP per capita, but he thinks it would eventually recover and thrive. Local Republicans did not respond for comment, but some would object to Veasey’s assertions that immigrants, whether they are here legally or not, deserve protections. DREAMers like Radilla can aggravate rather than inspire some who see her seat in school or at work as displacing someone born in the country. “Our current immigration system,” Veasey tells me, “is broken, whatever way you look at it.” In his eyes, the law itself is imperfect and outdated; he doesn’t think people should suffer under laws that were never written to account for their contemporary conditions.

Raised in Fort Worth by a single mother who worked for a footwear company, Veasey witnessed politics from afar as a child. His uncle worked for Jim Wright, the majority leader of the Texas House, and Veasey remembers thinking, “If I could just be one of those guys sitting behind the congressmen, I would be happy.” In eighth grade, Veasey’s mom bought him a subscription to U.S. News & World Report. “That’s what really got me geeked up.” As a 15-year-old, he became so fascinated with the Iran-Contra affair that he’d often snub friends to watch updates on television.

After earning a B.S. from Texas Wesleyan University in mass communication, Veasey got his first view into the world of politics as a congressional staffer in north Texas. By his 30s, he was ready to run for office. Veasey was elected in 2004 to represent District 98 — now part of District 33 — in the Texas State House. He served four consecutive terms and became the whip and chair of the Democratic caucus.

Today, making his way through the national landscape, Veasey is critical of some progressives’ response to Trump. “Demonstrations and marches might get you some coverage on the news,” he says, “but they’re not going to result in any meaningful policy changes.” What will? The current system is imperfect, he admits. But he still believes it’s the best tool we’ve got. Go out and vote, he says.

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