Rick Perry’s Immigration Problem

Rick Perry's immigration positions aren't at all unreasonable, and that presents a problem for him inside the Republican Party.

One of the most telling moments of the debate on Thursday night was the exchange between Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry over immigration in general, and in particular Perry’s support for a Texas law that allows Texas residents whose parents brought them here illegally qualify for in-state tuition status. Here’s the entire exchange via Mediaite:

Quite obviously, Perry’s response on the tuition question, calling his opponents heartless, didn’t really go over very well with the GOP debate. A Fox News focus group that watched the debate and was interviewed immediately thereafter, reacted very negatively to Perry’s response and his opponents have piled on him in the aftermath of the debate. Mitt Romney, for example, told a Florida CPAC gathering yesterday that he opposed illegal immigration because he had a heart and a head:

The former Massachusetts governor responded to Perry’s assertion during Thursday’s GOP presidential debate that those who disagree with providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants lack a heart.

“My friend Gov. Perry said if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals, that you don’t have a heart,” Romney said at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. “I think 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.”

As a policy matter, there really isn’t anything all that objectionable about the in-state tuition program that is causing Perry so much trouble. For one thing, as Kevin Williamson notes, states are already required to provide K-12 education to children of illegal immigrants, so the decision to extend this benefit isn’t really all that big a deal. This is especially true in Texas, where tuition at state universities is comparatively low due to the fact that the schools benefit from oil and gas income generated by land granted to them by the state more than a 100 years ago. These students were either brought here by their parents, in which case they are not morally culpable for the fact of their illegal status, or they were born here, in which csae they are American citizens anyway. To a large extent, these students are no different from any other Texas High School student and, if they’ve spent their entire school career there, the Lone Star State has already invested a considerable amount of money in their education system. Cutting them off when they graduate from High School because of the actions of their parents strikes me as both unfair and unwise.

There’s a final point to take note of. Offering discounted tuition rates to in-state students is a policy decision that states have made over the years, not in recognition of some “right” to discounted tuition, but because they want to create incentives for students to go to college and to do so in their home states. Obviously, the hope is that if they go to school there, they will stay after graduation and contribute to the state’s economy. Looking at it from that perspective, the decision by Texas to extend that benefit to the children of parents who are here illegally makes perfect sense and the fact that it received near unanimous support from the heavily Republican Texas Legislature should be a fairly good indication of why it became law.

That’s a policy argument, though. This is all about politics, and in the current political climate in the GOP anything that is seen as even slightly conciliatory toward illegal immigration is considered a deviation from orthodoxy. As Kevin Drum correctly notes, though, in this case Perry has gotten himself stuck in a corner that it will be difficult to get out of. The antipathy toward illegal immigration in the GOP is fairly strong so it’s no surprise at all that anyone who is perceived to divert even slightly from full-throated opposition to the same is viewed with suspicion, just as Lindsey Graham. Now, with people like Mitt Romney framing the in-state tuition law as a subsidy to illegal immigrants, Perry is left with a huge problem that was only made worse by a response that some would interpret as arrogant and dismissive. All of which leaves of the Perry campaign with a dilemma:

The dilemma is how to repair the damage that his immigration comments have created without leaving the impression that he is ready to flip-flop on the particular issue of tuition assistance for immigrant children.

That will be difficult for several reasons.

First, Mr. Romney and his aides are ready to pounce at the first indication that Mr. Perry is backing away from his previous views. They will use that to undermine his other narrative — of a hard-charging governor who is anything but wishy-washy.

Second, Mr. Perry’s campaign by necessity must spend plenty of time in Iowa and South Carolina in the coming weeks. Those are two states where the issue is still very raw and where Mr. McCain found the voters to be particularly unforgiving.

Third, the tuition assistance program that Mr. Perry supported in Texas is very similar to the national Dream Act that Mr. Obama, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, all supported. The moderator of the Fox debate on Thursday even referred to it as the Texas Dream Act.

The more that his rivals attach Mr. Perry to an Obama-like policy, the harder it will be for him to convince conservative, Tea Party voters that they should not hold it against him.

The same is true, I think, of some of other’s Perry’s positions on immigration such as his opposition to a border fence, which he explained quite well I think at the debate. In that particular case, Perry is right that the idea of a 2,000 mile long border fence that stretches all the way from Tijuana to the Gulf of Mexico is impractical, but as with his arguments in favor of the in-state tuition program, these arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears for people who are ideologically convinced that these ideas will work. One would think that a Governor of the state with the longest border with Mexico would be seen as more of an expert on this issue than a Congresswoman from Minnesota or a Senator from Pennsylvania, but apparently that’s not the case.

In the end, it’s not clear what impact the immigration issue will have on Perry’s fate in the GOP race. Putting that one issue aside, he is seemingly more in line with the GOP base and the Tea Party than Mitt Romney, and more experienced and electable than any of the other Tea Party candidates. It’s a vulnerability, though, and that’s why you’re likely to continue to see Romney and others to attack Perry on this issue. Whether it will work depends on whether Perry is able to put the issue behind him or at least convince Republican voters that they shouldn’t hold it against him. If he’s going to do that, though, he’s going to have to come up with a better response than calling those who disagree with him heartless.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Campaign 2012, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Mr. Prosser says:

    Romney probably agrees with Perry on the college policy but knows how to exploit a gap in the Perry conservative armor. I think Joyner’s previous post on tribal politics sums this up very well.

  2. john personna says:

    Santorum also noticed his support for “bi-national” health care with Mexico.

    That Texas would, to some extent, fund Mexican health care, must provide conflict to Perry supporters.

  3. jukeboxgrad says:

    it’s not clear what impact the immigration issue will have on Perry’s fate in the GOP race

    I think it’s enough to sink him. Listen to the crowd at the debate.

    In April, Trump polled as the GOP frontrunner. Where is he now? In July, Bachmann polled as the frontrunner. Where is she now? And this was a fun headline in May: “Zogby Poll: Cain Takes Lead Over Romney.”

    Is the current infatuation with Perry fundamentally any different from the prior infatuations? No, it’s not. Perry’s 15 minutes are about to come to an end. The message behind all this is that the GOP (i.e., the tea party) abhors Romney almost as much as they abhor Obama. So will they will jump into bed with anyone else who looks plausible from a distance. A closer look then leads to disenchantment.

    In the end, it’s going to be Romney vs Palin. They will be the ones left standing. They share this unique characteristic: everyone already knows everything there is to know about them. There’s no reason to anticipate a problem with disenchantment because all the disenchantment that’s going to happen has already happened.

    When she jumps in, she has a powerful argument that goes like this: who else have you got? And her timing is smart, because everyone will know the answer to that question: ‘almost no one.’ Lots of names that looked like an answer to that question six months ago have now been ruled out. Therefore she’ll be in a position to make a very big splash.

  4. racehorse says:

    These people are basically here to stay. It makes sense to make sure that they are well educated from public school to college level. In my experience with them, they are smart and well behaved.

  5. john personna says:

    It is kind of sad. I thought GWB also had a pragmatic view on immigration. But, I suppose it’s not surprising that what appeals to me, the moderate, would be wedge issue for the party faithful.

  6. Sam says:

    If anyone is looking for all things in any singe candidate they will be sorely disappointed.

    Remember that once anyone steps into office, reality hits and pressure comes from different sides.

    Remember all the promises by The One?

  7. john personna says:


    It makes sense to make sure that they are well educated from public school to college level.

    I think college has too much become “high school plus,” and I would reduce the goal of 4-year degrees for all. That’s slightly orthogonal to this, though. If an illegal graduates HS with a 4.0, or aces the SAT, and wants to get a degree and stay here, that’s probably a good idea.

  8. john personna says:


    Remember all the promises by The One?

    Promises? Got any links to actual promises?

  9. Fiona says:

    It says a lot about the character of the current Republican base that Perry’s most reasonable stands are the ones most likely to get him in trouble. I don’t for a minute think Romney really believes that providing in-state tuition for the kids of illegal immigrants, many of whom were born here, is horrible policy, anymore than he thinks building a border fence will keep too many illegals out. However, it’s a useful club with which to bludgeon Perry, who reacted like a deer in the headlights in responding to Romney’s attacks.

  10. John Peabody says:

    What did Perry say? Something like, “If you build a 12-foot feance along the entire border, it’s great business for those selling 15-foot ladders”.

  11. Sam says:

    @john personna:

    Well, if you can’t recall, you must not be interested.

    And besides, you would cry about the sources of any links anyway since the truth is not relevant to you.

  12. Sam says:

    But I will list a few.

    “No family making less than $250,000 will see any form of tax increase.” (multiple times on the campaign trail)

    Then-senator Obama declared that a recess appointment is “damaged goods” and has “less credibility” than a normal appointment. August 25, 2005.

    “These negotiations will be on C-SPAN, and so the public will be part of the conversation and will see the decisions that are being made.” January 20, 2008, and seven other times.

    “We’ve got a philosophical difference, which we’ve debated repeatedly, and that is that Senator Clinton believes the only way to achieve universal health care is to force everybody to purchase it. And my belief is, the reason that people don’t have it is not because they don’t want it but because they can’t afford it.” Barack Obama, speaking at a Democratic presidential debate, February 21, 2008.

    Executive order stating, “The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order.” January 22, 2009.

    “Somebody like Khalid Sheik Mohammad is gonna get basically, a full military trial with all the bells and whistles.” September 27, 2006

    “We will launch a sweeping effort to root out waste, inefficiency, and unnecessary spending in our government, and every American will be able to see how and where we spend taxpayer dollars by going to a new website called recovery.gov.” – President Obama, January 28, 2009

    Make government open and transparent. The MOST transparent in history.

    Public will have 5 days to look at a bill.

    “I want to go line by line through every item in the Federal budget and eliminate programs that don’t work, and make sure that those that do work work better and cheaper.”

    “If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.”

    “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”

    Need more?

  13. john personna says:


    Basically anytime a Democrat expresses a goal, some idiot Republican writes it down as a “promise,” like a six year old.

  14. racehorse says:

    @john personna: I’m fine with that. The biggest group that colleges are trying to get are males – 66% of college students are women.

  15. john personna says:

    BTW, did GWB “promise” a Beacon of Democracy in Iraq? Or was that just a goal?

  16. john personna says:


    My newphew started UCSD, he’s the only non-asian on his dorm floor. Heh. Times change.

  17. Mercer says:

    The most effective way to stop illegal immigration is to mandate the use of e-verify by employers -which Perry is opposed to even for state contractors. Perry’s main rationale for his candidacy is job growth in Texas. A study released from CIS shows 81% of the jobs went to immigrants. The immigration issue is not going away for Perry.


  18. PD Shaw says:

    For one thing, as Kevin Williamson notes, states are already required to provide K-12 education to children of illegal immigrants, so the decision to extend this benefit isn’t really all that big a deal.

    Technically states can’t bar children of illegal immigrants from K-12 education because the states have more direct means of deterring illegal immigration by taking effective measures to prohibit the employment of illegal immigrants. The right exists only because the condition persists.

  19. Trumwill says:

    @Fiona: With very rare exception (like diplomats), if you were born here, you are not an illegal immigrant.

  20. @Mercer:

    So you want to make it so all hiring decisions must be preapproved by the federal government? Plus requiring all businesses to retain a lawyer to run e-verify for them?

    And that’s assuming e-verify worked perfectly. Given it’s been shown to have a false positive rate of fifteen percent, that’s tens of millions of American citizens that won’t be able to work because of beurcratic screwups.

    And this is supposedly the part of smaller government. But I guess hating minorities is more important.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    If he’s going to do that, though, he’s going to have to come up with a better response than calling those who disagree with him heartless.

    Let me see if I have this right….

    People who cheer the death of an innocent man (CTWillingham) are not heartless….

    People who cheer the death of an uninsured man are not heartless…

    People who boo a man risking his life for his country because he puts his “you know what” where “you don’t want to admit the existence of”…. are. not. heartless.

    But people who object to giving an instate illegal resident in state tuition….. Are? Let me just state for the record that I think they are heartless. I also think they are all one and the same people.

    The people who stood outside of the Texas state prison at Huntsville and cheered the death of Cameron Todd Willingham are the same ones who now proclaim that a child should not be allowed to be the best they can be, because their parents forgot to cross all the “T”s and dot all the “I”s. (or weren’t able to).

    It is not my party, and I won’t cry even if I want to. But if you do, I will b*tch slap you till the cows come home (or at least until my arm gets tired).

  22. mattb says:

    @john personna:

    [Obama] Promises? Got any links to actual promises?

    Check out politi-fact which has done the most work tracking his promises. (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/)

    At last count they had total 500+ different campaign promises: Here’s a quick breakdown::
    Current Count %
    Promise Kept 145 29%
    Compromise 43 8%
    Promise Broken 47 9%
    Stalled 69 14%
    In the Works 202 40%
    Not yet rated 2 0%
    total 508

    Looking at what the considered his top 25 (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/obameter/subjects/politifacts-top-promises/), here’s the count:

    Kept 5 20%
    Compromise 2 8%
    Broken 6 24%
    Stalled 3 12%
    In the works 9 36%

    This was not tracked for the Bush Administration so we can’t do a cross president comparison. But PolitiFact is tracking the promises made by the GOP in 2010. Here’s where they currently stand:

    count %
    Promise Kept 8 14%
    Compromise 1 2%
    Promise Broken 1 2%
    Stalled 5 9%
    In the Works 14 25%
    Not yet rated 28 49%
    total 57

  23. anphang says:

    The thing I find most astonishing about Governor Perry’s response is that it seems like it’s not merely a Democratic vice to use dovish language in defense of moderate or liberal policy proposals, but a problem affecting any politician who argues from a moderate stance – and as the Texas GOP’s one concession to moderation is, quite intelligently, on immigration policy, Governor Perry has to be aware of his.

    The reaction of the debate crowd makes the “grey vs. brown” dynamic impossible to underestimate, I guess. From personal experience, I can say that it’s not just senior citizens who feel this way, either – a friend of mine who is turning 40 this year basically made the point about primary and secondary schooling, but to reach the exact opposite conclusion, saying something to the effect of “I think we’ve done enough for children of illegal immigrants at the point where they’re graduating high school.”

    As a sidenote, I can’t help but feel that in the era of 24-hour news, it should be possible to discuss all this on a major news network, if only in the wee hours of the morning when hardcore political junkies like myself can watch it later in clips.

  24. john personna says:


    Wow matt, I guess it’s just mind-boggling to me that anyone would count up 500 things as “promises.” That’s just so contra my world view.

    Googling now, I am kind of surprised how many time Obama did say “I promise,” but surely he isn’t a madman who hit 500!

  25. mattb says:

    @john personna:

    Wow matt, I guess it’s just mind-boggling to me that anyone would count up 500 things as “promises.” That’s just so contra my world view.

    I’m guessing that many of those promises came out of the campaign’s policy whitepapers and publications.

  26. Sam says:

    @john personna:

    What else was expected. You asked and received than you slink away from it like a child who has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar!

    I guess Executive Orders are not meant to be taken seriously!

  27. Sam says:

    “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”

    Naaaaa, thats not a promise is it?

    “If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.”

    Naaaa , thats not a promise is it?

    I guess since you see the world through the small opening of a sphincter you may not see the light.

  28. john personna says:


    No Sam. I reject the whole “promise inflation” thing.

    Calling me names does not make a list of 500 meaningful in any way.

    And of course, it shows where you are coming from.

    “The first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing I’d do.”

    Naaaaa, thats not a promise is it?

    This might be typical. Can you sign something that hasn’t been passed?

    The alarm expressed by this widely forwarded e-mail is somewhat premature. As of Feb. 10, more than a month into the new Congress, the Freedom of Choice Act did not exist at all. No version of this bill had been introduced.

    Earlier versions of the FOCA proposal have been kicked around Congress for at least the last 20 years without ever coming to a vote. The furthest that we could find such a measure getting was when different versions cleared committees in the House and Senate in 1993, the first year of President Bill Clinton’s administration. But even though Democrats then held the White House, a commanding 57 to 43 majority in the Senate and a 254 to 175 majority in the House, the measures died without reaching the floor of either chamber.

    Do you have more recent info?

    Was a bill passed and put on the President’s desk?

    Or, and this is critical to the whole promise thing, do you want to ignore all the changes in the world, and just insist that the President can do anything, by force of will?

    BTW, it looks like no, the bill never passed.

  29. john personna says:

    BTW, reviewing I don’t see any income tax increases. There were small tax increases on cigarettes and other tobacco products, and of course the health care tax/credit balance (net zero for us insured).

    There have been no income tax increases, even for people above $250K, though I’d argue that the world has changed, and the economy has gone differently that we all expected.

    That’s not a commitment suited to our current world.

  30. PWilk says:

    Enforcement of immigration laws is the job of the federal government and has not been relegated to the states. Rick Perry has no choice but to control the Texas border to protect citizens of Texas with the use of Texas resources and hundreds of millions of dollars from Texas taxpayers. It would be nice if everyone from other states would send donations and manpower to assist the state of Texas with this effort since everyone seems to be so concerned.

    Dealing with illegal immigration is nothing new for border states. Since Rick Perry has been governor he has seen the problem escalate with little increase in enforcement by the federal government. The result being a huge increase of illegal immigrants in the state of Texas. He has been dealt lemons and he is doing what he can to make lemonade.

    A small part of that is allowing children of illegal immigrants who live in Texas and attended school in Texas for at least 3 years to attend college at in state tuition rates. They also must agree to begin the process of becoming US citizens. Governor Perry does not have the authority to deport them, so the state of Texas has chosen to try to make life better for those young people who are here through no choice of their own so they will become self sufficient and contributing to society. Until the federal government secures our border and it is decided what is to be done with the millions of illegal immigrants residing in this country, there’s not much any individual state can do.

    Citizens of all states need to become involved. Criticizing Texas and Governor Perry does not solve the problem. Contact your representatives and let them know that you want something done about this problem NOW! American citizens are dying on the southern border of this country and it’s not getting any better. If elected, Governor Perry will see to it that illegal immigration is ended in this country forever. Stop the criticism and spinning of the truth and get behind him in his efforts.

  31. magyart says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    E-verify is a free govt. resourse and doesn’t require a lawyer to administer. Perhaps your personal assistant or your 14 yr. old can explain it to you.

    Basically, you type a social security number into a computer and get a reply within 60 seconds, 98% of the time. No legal resident has ever been denied employment due to E-Verify, but pleanty of illegal residents have.

    Business owners and managers should realize, the sooner legal immigrants and citizens are employed, the faster our economy will recover.

  32. magyart says:

    Our economy will not recover until unemployment is lowered. Jobs should go to legal immigrants and citizens, not illegal residents. Immigration and our economy are not seperate issues. Illegal immigration is a drag on our economy. E-Verify would help insure legal residents are employed.

    Gov. Perry wants us to believe the illegal residents he gave in state tuition, are working toward citizenship. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once you come here illegally, even if your parents bring you at a young age, you can’t legalize your status without first leaving the country.

    Giving illegal residents of Texas an in state tuition dosen’t eliminate their “drag on society”, for Texas can’t make them a citizen. Even with a college degre, they legally can’t be employed. None of these students have graduated and become engineers, nurses, teachers, etc.

    Gov. Perry and Pres. Obama both oppose E-Verify, a border fence and AZ’s SB1070. They both support in state tuition for illegal residents. I’ll not be voting for either one of them in 2012.