Rick Perry’s Immigration Stance Not Exactly Hard-Line Conservative

Rick Perry's position on immigration-related issues could be a problem for the same conservatives who have been getting behind him.

While Rick Perry has become the darling of the Tea Party movement and conservatives in general since entering the race, his stance on the hot-button topic of immigration is one area where he is decidedly not in step with conservative orthodoxy. In both his public statements and the policies he’s enacted in ten years as Governor, PerPry has been close to the positions of George W. Bush on this issue than any other, and that could be a problem for the Texas Governor as the race heats up. Just yesterday in a speech in New Hampshire, Perry dismissed the idea of a border fence between the United States and Mexico, something that has been part of the conservative playbook on immigration for years now.  Most of Perry’s immigration positions are, like Bush’s before him, rather reasonable and could form the building blocks of a bipartisan resolution of a contentious issues. In today’s political climate, though, Perry is straying from orthodoxy on an issue that many on the right consider important, and that could be a problem for him further down the line. Ed Kilgore writes in The New Republic that immigration could end up being a trap for Perry, especially if his opponents attack him on it.

Some of the criticism of Perry on this issue has come from the usual, predictable, sources.Even before Perry entered the race, former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who built his career on an anti-immigration record the flirted many times with xenophobia, blasted Perry over his immigration record in a Politico Op-Ed:

Perry is eager to separate himself from his predecessor in the Texas governor’s mansion, George W. Bush — who is unpopular with both tea party Republicans and the American electorate as a whole. But one area where Perry’s positions are virtually identical to Bush is immigration.

When I ran for president in 2008, I tried to pressure the Republican candidates to take a hard line against illegal immigration. For this, Perry called me a racist.

When he first took office as governor in 2001, Perry went to Mexico and bragged about his law that granted “the children of undocumented workers” special in-state tuition at Texas colleges, the first state in the nation to do so.

“The message is simple,” Perry concluded, “educacion es el futuro, y si se puede.” Education is the future, and (echoing Cesar Chavez’s slogan) yes we can.]

Just a few weeks ago, Perry defended his decision to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. He said “to punish these young Texans for their parents’ actions is not what America has always been about.”

Perry opposed Arizona’s tough anti-illegal immigration law SB 1070. “I have concerns,” he explained, “with portions of the law passed in Arizona and believe it would not be the right direction for Texas.”

He spoke out last year against using E-Verify to prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs as state employees, who get their paychecks from the taxpayers. He insisted it “would not make a hill of beans’ difference.”

Numbers USA, a group that supports immigration control, gives Perry a “D-” for his positions supporting amnesty, open borders, and opposing border security.

Perry, in a speech in Mexico in 2007, said he supports completely open borders, calling for the “free flow of individuals between these two countries who want to work and want to be an asset to our country and to Mexico.”

In the same speech he came out against building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.Perry also came out in favor of blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants in 2006, albeit without citizenship, supporting “a guest worker program that takes undocumented workers off the black market and legitimizes their economic contribution.”

In addition to anti-immigration zealots like Tancredo, though, now that Perry is in the race his views on immigration are starting to catch the attention of his fellow candidates including, most recently, Mitt Romney:

Addressing the Republican National Hispanic Assembly in Florida, Mr. Romney said the U.S. “must do a better job of securing its borders, and as president, I will.” Mr. Romney said that includes “completing construction of a high-tech fence.”

Mr. Romney didn’t mention Mr. Perry by name, but the Texas governor has dismissed the idea of a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border as “ridiculous,” but has said he supports a fence in some metropolitan areas. Mr. Romney also focused on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

“Finally, we must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration.  As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants.” Under a bill Mr. Perry signed, Texas provides in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria.

Immigration could be one of Mr. Perry’s main weaknesses among tea party voters, who have peppered candidates with questions on the topic at recent town halls. Romney advisers have said they intend to exploit it.

Tina Korbe at Hot Air wonders why Perry, who represents a state with a much larger population of undocumented immigrants than Romney’s Massachusetts, opposes a border fence and holds other, less hardline, positions on immigration, even to the point of granting in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants. There are several reasons for this, I think, and they all have to do with both the unique situation in Texas itself and the fact that, as Governor, Perry has had to deal with these issue first hand, and seems to realize that easy-sounding solutions that can be compressed into a sound bite aren’t usually the answer. In the end, though, it boils down to the fact that, in Texas, blind opposition to immigration and demonization of undocumented immigrants simply doesn’t work politically and partly this is because, as in other parts of the country, immigration is a vital part of the economy:

A 2006 state report said that the state’s undocumented immigrants – 1.4 million then, 1.65 million now – added $17.7 billion to the gross state product, and that the state came out ahead on taxes it collected versus services it provided. But local governments and county hospitals were shouldering the burden of caring for that population.

The Texas Association of Business, which has backed Perry in all his gubernatorial campaigns and has members who individually have provided Perry with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, touted that report in its firm support of comprehensive immigration reform. TAB, the state’s chamber of commerce, has lobbied for immigration reform and against state legislation regulating immigration.

“The economy would suffer without undocumented workers,” said Bill Hammond, TAB president and CEO. “We need them.”

Texas remains welcoming to immigrants in ways some other states are not.

Perry is largely right on the border fence issue. In addition to the general principled arguments about militarizing the borders in the manner that construction of such a funce would require, the fact is that a border fence does nothing to address the root causes of the immigration problem. People are coming to the United States, legally and illegally, because of poverty, violence, and political repression in their home countries, and because of the demand for cheap labor in the United States. Even if it were possible to construct a completely secure border fence, which is unlikely, it would do nothing to stop the flow of immigration since it doesn’t address the root causes. Moreover, we shouldn’t want it to do so. Immigration has been a net plus to the United States from the beginning and people who come here to make a better lives for themselves and their families contribute to the nation as a whole. Cutting off immigration would choke off the life blood not only of the economy, but of the thing that has made America something unique among nations.

Perry’s specific positions on the issue don’t strike me as objectionable as well. Keep in mind, for example, that the children of illegal immigrants being granted in-state tuition status under what some have called the “Texas DREAM Act” were brought here by their parents, they didn’t choose to break the law. Moreover, if they were born here, they are American citizens and entitled to be treated the same as their fellow Texas students regardless of where their parents came from. If Texas chooses to give them in-state tuition status, that doesn’t strike me as objectionable at all.

There are plenty of things Rick Perry has said and done that I have problems with, but his positions on immigration are not one of them. Will they be his undoing in the race for the Republican nomination? Only time will tell, but I think you can expect the first shots on this issue to be fired in Wednesday’s debate.

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. steve says:

    The Texas miracle relies upon cheap labor. Perry understands that. Still, I expect he will run against his record.


  2. Bleev K says:

    He will organize a big rally where we will all pray Jesus and the problem will be solved.

  3. Figures that Rick Perry finally states a policy I agree with and THAT’s the one that kills his candidacy with the Republicans.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    The number of whites in places like San Antonio, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, and El Paso have been going down for decades because high levels of illegal immigraiton and high Hispanic fertility have made it very hard for whites to live in those cities.

    Texas survives having a large number of illegal aliens by having a low tax, low regulation, low service government.

    Unless Perry is planning on turning the U.S. into a low tax, low regulation, low service country, having open borders and unlimited immigration is a stupid idea.

  5. mike says:

    They will give him a pass b/c he hates homos and loves Jesus and isn’t afraid to let everyone know it. In today’s republican party you don’t have to actually be consistently conservative. You just have to hate the right people, fire up the right wing christian fundamentalist, and spend money like a drunken sailor once elected (like Bush) and lower taxes.

  6. @superdestroyer:

    Of course, if you actually know the history of Texas, you know it only exists because anglos insisted on immigrating there even after Mexico banned immigration, then revolted and took the state from the Mexican government.

    Which makes it highly ironic to hear their descendants complaining about being displaced by unauthorized Mexican immigrants.

  7. @Stormy Dragon:

    You do realize your wasting your time arguing with a Paleocon on the issue of race right?

    Chickenhawk Tancredo wants to complain about tax payer funded tuition for illegal immigrants huh? How about getting rid of tax payer funded tuition instead? All he and his lot are doing is complaining about person B stealing the money instead of person A while the elephant in the room is that the money is ill gotten via the government gun in the first place. One of the reason why college is so expensive is because the state is willing to throw money to just about anyone in order to go its a vicious cycle so to speak. The welfare state is the actual problem opposed to the illegal immigrant.

  8. Console says:

    I have huge doubts as to whether Perry will have the same stance on immigration come debate time. Dude is the definition of a politician. This is going to be another one of those “Rick Perry is for the tenth amendment. *Perry’s seemingly unorthodox position gets press* Well, looks like he isn’t anymore”

  9. Rick says:

    He just lost my vote. 2 out of 3 don`t get it for me. There is probably 3 out 10 that actually live the right way. The other 8 don`t pay taxes, send money back to mexico, won`t learn English and actually want to turn the US into another Mexico. We need a border fence and we need to stop paying for everyone to live here for free. This nation is turning into a $&!* hole all in the name of Liberalism. And No I don`t agree with slave labor wages either, those people should be put out of business for not paying anyone a good wage.