RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I'm Rachel Martin at our member station KERA in Dallas, Texas. And we are here today because Texas is holding the first primary in this year's midterm elections. And it is hard to talk about politics in Texas without talking about immigration. Texas has the longest border with Mexico of any state. John Burnett covers immigration for NPR, and he is on the line from Austin, his home base.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Welcome to Texas, Rachel.
MARTIN: So happy to be here. Thank you. So obviously, immigration is very front and center in the national political discourse right now. How is that debate playing out in the Lone Star State?
BURNETT: Well, historically, Texans have had laissez-faire attitudes toward immigrants, both legal and illegal. Lots of people came across without papers, and they did the hard jobs that Texans didn't want to do. And what's more, 1 in 6 Texans is foreign-born, and lots of Mexican-Americans have family in the Mexican border towns, even. But opinions have been shifting to the right on immigration. Here's what a recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found about Texas conservatives. Most Republican Texans want fewer legal immigrants. They want to halt protection for DREAMers - those young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally. They support a border wall, and they think undocumented immigrants should be immediately deported.
MARTIN: And I understand that you have met this man, a conservative political commentator, podcast host, who is thriving in this climate in the state.
BURNETT: Let's meet George Rodriguez of San Antonio. He's a Mexican-American podcaster who's tired of hearing America called an immigrant nation.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "EL CONSERVADOR")
GEORGE RODRIGUEZ: Howdy, howdy, howdy, my friends. George Rodriguez, El Conservador, talking to you from San Antonio, deep in the heart of South Texas. How's everybody today?
BURNETT: El Conservador - that's conservative in Spanish - records his podcast in his bedroom. He's surrounded by memorabilia, photos, coffee mugs and certificates from his two decades of service in the federal government. He held a variety of posts in the Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations from Interior to Housing to FEMA. But El Conservador's passion is immigration.
RODRIGUEZ: Every nation has the right to protect its borders. Somehow we've lost the way on that aspect of it.
BURNETT: I caught up with Rodriguez last month at the Border Security Expo in San Antonio. The trade show was bristling with the latest technology to detect people sneaking across the border.
RODRIGUEZ: My thinking of illegal aliens is that they're here illegally, period. Any type of justification after that, to me, is a moot point. That you are working, that you are providing really doesn't matter to me because you have entered the home without permission.
BURNETT: With immigration constantly in the headlines, Rodriguez has become a go-to guest for Univision and Fox. He's in demand to sit on panels at universities and town halls for a right-wing perspective.
RODRIGUEZ: I believe I get greater credibility because I am Mexican-American, because I am a South Texan born and raised.
BURNETT: The 65-year-old commentator brags that he's a sixth-generation Texan, born on the border in Laredo.
RODRIGUEZ: America is a nation of people who came here as immigrants, but we are a nation of citizens now. And I reject whenever somebody says we're a nation of immigrants. No, I'm a citizen. I'm not an immigrant.
BURNETT: This has put Rodriguez at odds with the Latino political establishment in San Antonio, which skews Democratic. They call him...
RODRIGUEZ: A vendido, a sellout.
BURNETT: ...And worse. Here is Rodriguez several years ago when he was president of the San Antonio Tea Party. He's urging a high school teacher to expose his students to more diverse viewpoints.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RODRIGUEZ: I would have you teach more...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Quiet, please.
RODRIGUEZ: ...Balanced, conservative thoughts, rather than just bringing folks that bring liberal ideals and placards here.
JONATHAN BRYANT: You could just say what you are, a Nazi.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Whoa, whoa.
RODRIGUEZ: OK. OK.
BURNETT: The teacher's response led to calls for him to be fired, though he wasn't. Rodriguez shrugs off the recollection because El Conservador's moment has arrived. Texas nativism is ascendant. The president's harsh statements on immigrants have expanded Rodriguez's audience. He's waited all of his adult life for a president like Donald Trump. He recalls during the campaign when Trump visited the Border Patrol in Laredo, and during a press conference, pointed across the bridge to Mexico.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Oh, there's great danger with the illegals, and we're just discussing that. But we have a tremendous danger on the border with the illegals coming...
RODRIGUEZ: I fell in love with him at that point. That's it. That was it.
BURNETT: So Rachel, "El Conservador" podcast started two years ago at the same time that Trump's campaign was gaining steam. The podcast now has 3,000 followers, from San Antonio to Moscow.
MARTIN: All right, so it's definitely a factor - immigration and people - how they are thinking about it in these midterm elections. I mean, we hear this talk about this Democratic momentum in Texas, John. Can you give us an example of a place that might be turning more purplish?
BURNETT: Yeah. The 23rd District of Texas stretches from El Paso to San Antonio. It's got more than 800 miles of the Rio Grande, so border and immigration issues are huge down there. And it's a toss-up this year. The incumbent is Will Hurd, a demo - ah - a Republican. He doesn't have strong primary opponents, so he'll be fighting for his seat against five Democrats. And they're going to have a hard time going to the left of him on immigration. He's against a wall. He thinks it's the least effective way to secure the border, and he favors a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
MARTIN: All right, NPR's John Burnett. He'll be helping us cover the Texas primaries. Thanks so much, John.
BURNETT: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.