HUNTSVILLE, Texas—Brad Bailey knows he has his work cut out for him. He sips a beer and watches as members of the Republican Party of Walker County mingle before their annual Ronald Reagan dinner. It’s an all-white, well-heeled group with a smattering of cowboy hats mixed in.
“What’s the crowd like?” he asks Tracy Sorensen, the party chairwoman. She tells him it’s mostly traditional conservatives, plus a few agitators for Ron Paul, the former House member and presidential candidate from Texas. “We’re glad to have you here,” she adds.
A restaurateur by trade, Bailey has become seasoned in politics as a city-council member in his hometown of Nassau Bay, Texas, and as someone who has made dozens of presentations to GOP groups around the state, all on the same subject: the urgent need for immigration reform. He is pushing for a way out of the party’s current dilemma in which voters view Republicans as obstructionists and naysayers.
Still, this is a crowd that likely sees immigration in terms of off-the-books work done by shady-looking Hispanics at day-laborer sites. They see foreigners as an invasive threat and worry about their having babies who automatically become citizens. And if given the choice, they probably would rather not talk about immigration at all.
With his conservative passion and a build reminiscent of a high school football player, Bailey looks like he could be a part of his audience. But it is his business experience that has given him a different perspective on immigration. He believes that Republicans will lose control of the state in five years if the GOP continues to make Hispanics feel unwelcome. To stop the bleeding, he says, Republicans need to change their philosophy by accepting some type of legalization for the current undocumented population, which is about 80 percent Latino.
“I challenge you to get to know some of these people. Know what they’re here for and what they ran from.”—Restaurateur Brad Bailey, speaking to a Republican group in southeast Texas
It’s not an easy sell, but Bailey has mastered the folksy lines that show the Walker County crowd he speaks their language. He tells them his dog’s name is “Dubya.” He complains about E-Verify, the electronic system that employers can use to check the legal status of their new hires. “I get hot under the collar when Republicans are screaming for [mandatory] E-Verify. That’s big government,” he says. “It’s a government-run software program. Folks, this will make the U.S. Postal Service look efficient.” That gets a laugh.
The audience grows less receptive, however, when he talks with affection about the Hispanic workers at his family’s restaurant, Sudie’s Seafood House, just outside Houston. Two years ago, at the height of the Republican presidential primary season, Bailey’s kitchen manager, Joel Hernandez, asked him how he could be a Republican when Republicans hate Hispanics. Bailey calls it his “Ah-ha!” moment. He realized then that the GOP needed to change. What he didn’t realize was how hard it would be to convince the party of that.
Bailey shows the group a photo of Hernandez and him together in Sudie’s kitchen. “I challenge you to get to know some of these people,” he says. “Know what they’re here for and what they ran from.”
If they could meet Hernandez, they’d find a mild-mannered man from El Salvador who greets you with a smile even when tending to four mammoth pots (marinara, broth, bacon bits, green beans) on a gas stove. He takes Sundays off from Sudie’s to go to church. He has been in the country for a while: In 1981, Hernandez paid a “fixer” $500 to bring him across the border. He was granted amnesty in 1986 under a law signed by President Reagan. He owns his home. He has been a naturalized citizen for 10 years.
“He is a great example of what a citizen can be,” Bailey says on the drive back to Houston. “How is that so bad?”
It’s an awkward and often unacknowledged truth that many immigrants in the United States haven’t gone the citizenship route that Hernandez has taken, illustrating the gulf between the immigrant population and the politicians who are angling for reform. About half of all the immigrants eligible to apply for citizenship don’t bother to do so, citing language and financial barriers and simple lack of interest, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And for those who are here illegally, becoming a citizen one day might be the furthest thing from their minds. More than a dozen who spoke with National Journal said that they are far more concerned about ending President Obama’s deportations of people without papers.
Before Bailey founded his nonprofit group Texas Immigration Solution in 2011, his life was different. He worried about staffing the fried-fish booth at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the escalating price of catfish, and the razor-thin profit margin for his upscale steak restaurant. “What was life like before August 2011? Restaurant, restaurant, restaurant. It was a lot easier,” he says.