Immigration has emerged as the question mark on Texas Governor Rick Perry's otherwise sterling conservative resume, with Perry's Republican presidential rivals lambasting his signing a bill that granted some undocumented Texas students in-state tuition at state universities.
Other Republican presidential candidates have seized on the issue. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) released a radio advertisement intoning that the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has hammered the issue in talks to voters.
The implication is that Perry is too lax on enforcing federal immigration laws, and that his support of the in-state tuition bill aligns him more closely with Democrats than Republicans -- California's legislature just passed a similar law over the loud objection of state Republicans, and Perry's explanation that immigrants who were brought to the country illegally should have equal opportunities mirrors progressives' argument for the federal DREAM Act.
But to those who have followed Perry's career as governor, the narrative that he is overly sympathetic to immigrants or weak on enforcement is somewhere between an oversimplification and an outright falsehood.
I think his position is definitely not holistically pro-immigrant, so in that sense I don't think it's out of step with the party, said Denise L. Gilman, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. I do think he's in favor of strong enforcement against undocumented immigrants.
Perry has staunchly supported a federal program, known as Secure Communities, that compels local and state police to enter the fingerprints of anyone they arrest into a Department of Homeland Security database, resulting in deportation proceedings for arrestees who turn out to be undocumented. While some governors have sought to suspend participation of the program, arguing that it breeds distrust of law enforcement and deports too many low-level or nonviolent offenders, Perry as expanded it.
On the issues of enforcement and the like, especially the need to detain and deport immigrants, his tone is a much harsher, more enforcement oriented tone than on measures like the in-state tuition bill, Gilman said.
Critics of the governor's immigration policy also point to his decision to designate a pair of bills emergency items, expediting their movement through the Texas legislature in the most recent session. One bill, which Perry signed into law, tightens requirements for the identification needed to vote, which opponents say disenfranchises minority voters less likely to have the needed identification.
The second bill would have prohibited so-called sanctuary cities, in which law enforcement agencies and local governments adopt policies that discourage their officers from asking arrestees about immigration status. Democratic legislators who voted against that legislation compare it to a controversial immigration law in Arizona that mandated officers to ask people they arrested about their immigration status. That legislation faltered amidst opposition from influential business leaders, one of whom was working on behalf of a prolific contributor to Perry's campaign.
It doesn't take a fourth grader with a big chief tablet and a number two pencil to know when the government designates voter ID and sanctuary cities an emergency, he is no friend of any immigrant, that's for damn sure, said State Senator Mario Gallegos, a Democrat. Gallegos had previously referred to the sanctuary cities bill as open season on Latinos.
Some Perry observers see the governor as a pragmatist whose nuanced view on immigration derives from governing a border state with a substantial Latino population. Geoffrey Hoffman, Director of the University of Houston Law School's Immigration Clinic, noted that no one is all pro-immigration or anti-immigration, and said that Perry's stance positions him better than any of the other Republican presidential candidates to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.
I think the perspective he's had is coming from a genuine compassion, that he does have the experience as a border governor so for many years he's had to deal with people on the border and their specific concerns, Hoffman said.
But it can be difficult to divine national intentions from state policies. Perry has consistently invoked the Tenth Amendment, maintaining that was is right for Texas is not necessarily right for the country. That partially explains his supporting the in-state tuition bill in Texas while opposing the federal DREAM act, which he denounced as just amnesty. Gilman said that his strong belief in state autonomy could mean a President Perry would be more likely to advocate a patchwork of rights or legislation from state to state, rather than an overhaul of federal immigration policy.
He has been very clearly a state's rights proponent from the beginning so that suggests that if you were to be consistent he would have to allow states to make their own decision about immigration decisions, Gilman said. That is likely to lead to many more Arizonas.
To Texas State Sen. José Rodriguez, a Democrat, any suggestion that Perry is progressive on immigration is ludicrous. Rodriguez's critique extended beyond legislation, like the sanctuary cities bill, that explicitly addressed immigration. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people of any state in the nation and lags behind most of the country in education indicators like high school dropout and graduation rates. Rodriguez noted that such issues disproportionately affect the Latino population, and said Perry's unwavering belief in limited government amounts to a failure to address the disparity.
He believes in the less government the better, and that viewpoint clearly is antithetical to the growing Latino population that is dependent on more opportunities for education to go to college, for example, and also more dependent on healthcare, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said that Perry's more lenient stance on some immigration issues is a function of political expediency. He noted that the in-state tuition bill was vocally backed by the business community, in addition to having strong bipartisan support in the legislature. Observers note that Perry is responding to similar pressure in opposing known as E-Verify, a federal program that mandates that businesses check the status of employees. Rodriguez said those positions illustrate Perry's disingenuousness as he seeks to broaden his political appeal.
He's trying to pander to a base of voters that wants more border security and opposes immigration reform and he wants to be seen for that base as a staunch supporter of those particular policy positions, but on the other hand and he want to appear to be liberal and progressive just because he passed in-state tuition, Rodriguez said.
My view is he can't have it both ways. He can't presume to appeal to the Latino community and get the Hispanic vote when his record indicates he has done much more to harm Latino aspirations in this country than people realize.
You can contact the reporter at j.white@IBTimes.com