Perry’s Immigration Stance Jeopardizes Lead in Republican Race

Texas Governor Rick Perry
Texas Governor Rick Perry. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Republican Johanna White was delighted to find herself nodding in agreement with almost everything Texas Governor Rick Perry said after he entered the race for her party’s presidential nomination six weeks ago.

Then he started talking about allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities at in-state tuition rates.

“It was a total turnoff,” said White, 51 and unemployed, from Port St. Joe, Florida. “I think it’s totally wrong. I’m almost 100 percent directly a Perry supporter, but I can’t agree with that.”

White, a party activist who doesn’t miss a chance to vote in Republican primaries, personifies an emerging liability for Perry, who has ascended to frontrunner status in the primary contest, eclipsing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in national primary polls, since declaring his candidacy August 13.

Romney and other Republican rivals have seized on Perry’s support for a Texas law allowing children of illegal immigrants who are admitted to public universities to attend at lower state-resident tuition rates to portray him as lax on an issue that stirs resentment among some Republican voters.

“It can definitely hurt him in a number of states, and it could hurt him nationally,” said Republican polling expert Tony Fabrizio, who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign. Fabrizio points to Iowa, home of the first presidential nominating caucuses, where “Republican caucus-goers believe it is absolutely not fair to give free benefits to illegals.”

Fits Texas Profile

While Perry’s stance fits the profile of his state -- with the nation’s second largest Hispanic population of 9.5 million in 2010 -- and could have broader appeal in a general election with a fast-growing Hispanic population nationally, it threatens to alienate many of the fiscal and social conservatives outside of Texas who hold sway in Republican nominating contests and oppose government aid to illegal immigrants.

“It’s a 90-10 issue for Republican voters,” Fabrizio said in an interview. “You want to see Republican voters go into orbit -- almost to the level of talking about Barack Obama --you mention this.”

Discussions with about two dozen Republican activists gathered at a party convention in Orlando, Florida Sept. 22-24 confirmed Fabrizio’s assessment. Many said the Texas governor’s stance on illegal immigration -- including his contention that building a border fence with Mexico would be impractical -- was the only thing preventing them from supporting Perry, otherwise most appealing to them among Republican contenders.

Florida Hispanic Growth

Florida’s Hispanic population grew 57.4 percent over the past decade to 4,223,806, the U.S. Census Bureau said in March. Latinos comprised 22.5 percent of the state’s total residents in 2010, up from 16.8 percent in 2000.

Perry finished a distant second in a non-binding straw poll conducted at the gathering, drawing 15.4 percent of the 2,657 votes cast, compared with 37.1 percent for the fast-food magnate Herman Cain, whose call to “throw out” the federal tax code brought cheering convention-goers to their feet.

Dorothea Madrigrano, 78, a retired Realtor from Boynton Beach, said she liked ’’Perry right off the bat until I heard about him giving all these kids a free ride.’’ She said: “I absolutely, positively disagree with any benefits that these people are getting, and if it were up to me, I’d round them all up and sweep them out of here.”

Practical, Compassionate

Perry says that in Texas, the policy is both the compassionate and practical one, arguing that the alternative is to deprive children of illegal immigrants of the opportunity for an education, thus increasing the likelihood that they will become a costly drag on society.

Perry’s approach to immigration is similar to that of the Texas governor before him, former President George W. Bush, who campaigned for president in 2000 with pledges to overhaul U.S. immigration laws and cope with a growing illegal population.

The Hispanic populace of Texas grew by 41.8 percent since 2000, according to the San Antonio-based Saber Research Institute. It accounted for 37.6 percent of the state’s population, the center reports, and the 9.5 million total Hispanic count included 3.3 million children 17 and younger.

Perry, during a televised Republican debate in Florida on Sept. 22, said: “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.”

Republican Boos

The comment drew boos from the Republican audience. Given the negative response the immigration issue evokes among Republicans, Perry’s competitors are taking every opportunity to raise it. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called Perry “soft” on illegal immigration, and Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota proclaimed it “madness” to allow illegal immigrants to receive government benefits.

Romney rejected Perry’s compassion argument in remarks the day after the debate, saying, “If you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart; it means that you have a heart and a brain.”

$100,000 Question

He cited a figure of $100,000 -- the approximate difference in four-year costs for out-of-state and in-state students to attend the University of Texas. He since has taken to tallying the discrepancy for other states where he and Perry are competing. Romney’s campaign circulated a document Sept. 24, while both men were in Michigan, noting that according to U.S. News & World Report, students from outside the state would have to pay $98,700 more to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor than would state residents, and $75,780 more to attend Michigan State University.

The numbers resonate with Tony Ledbetter, a Daytona Beach retiree, who said Perry “is going to lose based on that issue.”

“The fact that they’re here, that they’re going to school -- fine, but don’t give them $100,000 in taxpayer subsidies so they can go to college,” said Ledbetter, a self-described devotee of the anti-tax, anti-government spending Tea Party who said he wants former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to enter the race.

Ronald Reagan Invoked

Perry’s allies recognize the issue has the potential to hurt his bid, yet they say his position could be a virtue in a campaign in which the Texas governor is styling himself in the mold of former President Ronald Reagan, adored among core Republican supporters.

Reagan “said it best: We have to be the party of a big tent,” said Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Perry supporter. “We are the big-tent party, and I think Governor Perry exemplifies that, and has been the only candidate who has been willing to reach out on this issue.”

In Texas -- much of which used to be part of Mexico -- Perry’s position is in tune with history and tradition, even among Republicans, said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist.

“Even as the Republican Party developed this very hardball stance on immigration, Texas Republicans, including George W. Bush, always resisted that, and always took a different view,” Buchanan said. “That’s where Perry’s coming from. The logic that he laid out on television might not make sense to Mitt Romney, but it makes sense here.”

Softening Hard Edges

If Perry can make it through the Republican primaries, Buchanan said, his immigration position could boost his chances of taking the White House as “one of the hard-edge softeners that could allow him to be successful against Barack Obama.”

First he’ll have to win a nominating contest that elevates voters like White, an unemployed former bank president who with her unemployed husband says she is a month away from declaring bankruptcy and bristles at the fact that illegal immigrants are drawing on benefits she finances through taxes.

“They come over here, they get our health care, they get food programs, their children get it for free, and we’re paying for all this -- they’re not,” White said.

While illegal immigration doesn’t rank near the top of most voters’ concerns, it’s an important issue that can determine whether Republicans believe a candidate is “in tune” with them enough to deserve their vote, pollster Fabrizio said. “Immigration is symbolic to a lot of Republican voters of fairness and economic security and the burden of government on them.”

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