Perry’s Immigration Tightrope-Walk Getting Tighter
Governor Rick Perry’s record on illegal immigration was a target again at Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney pounced on the program Gov. Perry signed into law allowing in-state college tuition for some undocumented college students.
“I don’t see how it is that a state like Texas, to go to University of Texas if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount,” Romney said. “You know how much that is? It’s $22,000 a year.”
Perry’s approach to illegal immigration has set him apart from many conservatives, as he has walked a fine line on illegal immigration during his tenure as governor.
“For a Republican, Gov. Perry has what one may call a moderate position on immigration,” Mark Jones told KUT News. Jones is chair of the Political Science Department at Rice University.
Perry has been tough on immigration, in some cases. He signed a law this year requiring voters to show ID at the polls – a measure some say will negatively impact minority voters. He pushed for a system of surveillance cameras along the border to catch people crossing illegally. And he opposes amnesty.
“The governor has always tried to keep his base happy, without alienating those Hispanic voters who would vote for him in the Republican Party generally, as long as they don’t see the party as being overtly racist or anti-Hispanic,” Jones said.
But Perry may have line-walked himself onto a tight spot in his search for GOP primary voters.
At the CNN/Tea Party debate in Florida last week, Perry was asked about that law he signed in 2001 that allowed some undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition. Perry defended the program, to the dismay of some in the audience.
“And the bottom line is it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is; that is the American way. No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there, or what have you,” Perry said to jeers from the audience. “That’s what we’ve done in the state of Texas, and I am proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society.”
Back home, Perry got more tea-party heat on another immigration issue.
JoAnn Fleming, chairwoman of the Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee, and other tea party activists delivered a letter to Perry’s office asking him to call a special session to enact a ban on so-called sanctuary cities. It would mean cities could not prevent police from asking people about their immigration status.
“Gov. Perry needs to clarify his position on illegal immigration,” Fleming said. “And he needs to come back to Texas, and to finish the people’s unfinished business.”
The sanctuary-cities legislation died in the Legislature this year, even though Perry declared it an emergency item. Perry’s office said Thursday he would not be calling a special session on the matter.
Jones says that with a Legislature dominated by Republicans and the governor’s emergency declaration, it’s hard not to see its failure as part of Perry’s strategy to appear tough on illegal immigration without doing anything to curb it.
“Somehow, despite all that support and the dominance the Republicans have in these institutions, it somehow didn’t pass,” Jones said.
Business leaders, some of them big-time Perry donors, opposed the sanctuary cities law.
A large part of the Texas economy is fueled by immigrant labor. A study out this week suggests that 40 percent of the new jobs created in Texas since 2007 have gone to undocumented immigrants. The study was conducted by the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration policies.
In the heat of the debate last year over Arizona’s immigration law, which would have made it a crime to be in that state illegally, Perry said that Arizona’s approach was not right for Texas. He has acknowledged what he calls Texas’ “close, complex” relationship with Mexico.
Jones says that whenever Perry is pushed from the right on immigration, he tends to fall back on one thing: security.
“He likes to use border security and securing the border, boots on the ground, as his way to demonstrate to the Republican base that he is serious about immigration,” Jones said.
“You must secure the border first,” Perry said in an interview last year. “You can have all the discussions and debates about immigration reform you want, but they’re all going to be failures, unless and until you secure the border.”
Perry has called for more National Guard troops — and more Predator drone surveillance — along the border, although he opposes building a border fence.
Perry’s position as pro-security but not anti-immigrant may win him support among Hispanics.
“Certainly from a person who represents a highly Hispanic area that is right there along the border, it’s the sort of attitude that we want to see from a Republican Party that sometimes has gone a little bit further to the right on the issue than we would like,” , said state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg. Peña switched parties before this year’s legislative session.
But in a GOP primary electorate dominated by conservatives demanding tougher immigration enforcement, Jones says Perry knows he’s got a problem.
“He’s trying to do some damage control and send some signals that he’s a little more on the conservative side of the dimension than he has been over the past 10 years,” Jones said.
If Perry is in damage control mode, it was not on display at last night’s Fox News/Google Debate.
He was again asked about providing in-state tuition for undocumented students working toward citizenship. He began by defending his efforts on securing the border.
“But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.
He pointed out that the program was approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature. But when his answer was done, the initial applause was quickly drowned out by familiar boos.