One little known fact about Houston is that it was the only major city in the South to integrate nonviolently. A meeting was held in a downtown hotel with key African-American leaders -- preachers, business owners, barbers, undertakers -- and the business and political power players from Houston's white establishment. The meeting determined that Houston would integrate silently and sit-ins would end -- no newspaper articles, no television cameras. They were simply going to change the rules of the game; and they did without any violence. It was a meeting that represented how Houston politics happen: provide a room, bring together community leaders, business interests and politicians, and reach a deal. Such meetings certainly make for strange gatherings, but at critical junctures in our city's history this mixture has proven to be a winning cocktail.
This past May, I attended the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in D.C., where I was asked to describe the atmosphere in Texas of the immigrant community and immigration reform movement. I live in a 99 percent Latino neighborhood in the shadow of downtown Houston, and for better or worse I have worked on immigration reform for the past three years. Nonetheless, I found the question difficult to answer. The immigration reform movement, in my mind, was suffering from a disorienting case of vertigo in the aftermath of heart-wrenching failures to pass the Dream Act, and in the face of the growing hostility toward immigration reform in both the newly elected state and national legislative bodies. Now, with time to watch how things played out during our state's legislature secessions, perhaps some things are clearer to me now than they were only a couple of months ago. What has become clear in Texas is that the stagnation of the immigration reform movement has very little to do with not knowing what to do, and almost everything to do with a lack of political will to pass legislation on matters where both sides of the aisle find common ground.
We began working three years ago to bring together community, religious, and business leaders to pursue a common vision of immigration reform. At that time, the easy-to-anticipate chasm between predominately Republican business interests and predominately Democratic grassroots organizers was a defining reality. Business interests pushed guest worker programs. Grassroots organizers demanded amnesty. As the years passed and the desperation increased from both parties to find a workable solution, the gap between the grassroots and the grass-tops (as we call them) shrank. At least at this moment and on this issue, both saw their well-being as interconnected. Politics makes strange bedfellows.
The common purpose between the grassroots and grass-tops revealed itself through the advocacy work during the 2011 State Legislature. The Republican sweep in the 2010 election provided the State House a super-majority and the Senate only a few votes less than a super majority. The list of anti-immigration bills was extensive and grassroots organizers worked feverishly, successfully stopping the most damaging bills in the Senate during the first legislative secession. This summer, presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry called for special legislative sessions with the expressed intent of passing Arizona-like immigration policies. For these sessions the rules of the game would be different; the Senate would run by simple majority and Democrats lacked the ability to block any proposal fully backed by the Republicans. Doom and gloom was the word on the street. Yet, in stepped the grass-tops, CEOs from a leading grocery store chain and a leading homebuilder, to argue the immigrants' case. In short, the CEOs argued before the Republican dominated Senate that Arizona-like legislation would kill the Texas economy much the same way it killed Arizona's. The proposed legislation never reached the floor for a vote.
Joel Goza works for Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. He has a bachelor's degree from Wheaton College and Master's in Divinity from Duke University and currently helps to lead the church's ministry efforts in the surrounding community. Among his other involvements, Joel takes a formative role in the Houston Coalition for Immigration Reform.