Image: Marco Rubio
Joe Burbank  /  Getty Images file
Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, was the co-sponsor of a bill in 2003 and 2004, that would provide tuition breaks to children of illegal immigrants in Florida.
updated 9/28/2011 1:04:38 PM ET 2011-09-28T17:04:38

With Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry under attack for supporting tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants, former Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday offered some solidarity by calling a similar proposal in Florida “fair policy."

In 2001, Perry signed the first state law in the country that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. Former Florida state Rep. Juan Zapata said the Texas law was "the model" for legislation that he repeatedly — but unsuccessfully — pushed in his state. Two of his key allies then are now among the GOP's most sought-after stars: Bush, the subject of perpetual draft movements to run for president, and his fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, a sure bet for the GOP's vice presidential shortlist in 2012.

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“I think that is a fair policy," Bush said in an e-mail to National Journal on Tuesday, adding that the students who benefit from the tuition breaks find themselves in the United States through “no fault of their own."

The Republican schism over Perry’s stand on immigration reflects a jarring disconnect between the party’s political establishment and the restless conservative grassroots. If Bush and Rubio represent the future of the Republican party — which is inevitably intertwined with winning favor in the fast-growing Hispanic community — then what does it mean when a rock-ribbed conservative like Perry can’t take a moderate stance on immigration? Perhaps no other issue bedevils the Republican party as much.

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“Going after kids who have not committed any crime of their own volition and have earned their way into college could be disastrous for Republicans. Some folks still don’t get it," said Mario Lopez, president of the non-partisan Hispanic Leadership Fund. “The left has done a great job of making Republicans look awful on this issue, and unfortunately some candidates have taken the bait.’’

Bush, along with a number of Hispanic Republicans, has warned that harsh rhetoric over illegal immigration threatens to alienate the fastest-growing slice of the electorate. The rancorous debate over the immigration reform plan spearheaded by Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, has been blamed in part for the backlash that cost the GOP control of Congress in 2006.

Since he entered the presidential race last month and surged to the top of the polls, Perry has been repeatedly forced to defend his support for the tuition breaks, which his rivals have called a “magnet" for undocumented workers.

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“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 in last week’s debate broadcast on Fox News from Tampa. “We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society."

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Perry’s leading opponent, Mitt Romney, was ready with a comeback at a forum organized by the American Conservative Union the following day. "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," he shot back.

Rep. Michele Bachmann has also seized on the issue as she works to win back some of the conservative support she has lost to Perry. “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. That is not the American way,’’ the Minnesota Republican said in an earlier debate this month.

Although survey after survey shows the economy is the top issue in the 2012 campaign, illegal immigration continues to inflame the most hardline conservatives in the Republican party, who tend to dominate primary elections. The attacks have undoubtedly damaged Perry, who has pitched himself as a true conservative.

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He was the heavy favorite going into Saturday’s mock election run by the Republican Party of Florida until he made a number of missteps in Thursday’s debate, including his wobbly defense of his immigration record.

“He ran Texas very well, but I’m worried why he allowed the illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition,’’ said Doris Madry, a 78-year-old retired educator from Boca Raton who attended the debate. “I mean, if my daughter went to school there, she’d have to pay out-of-state tuition."

Perry ended up in a disappointing second place in the Florida straw poll, lagging far behind underdog Herman Cain in a pivotal primary state.

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About one dozen states offer some form of tuition assistance to the children of illegal immigrants. Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles, was the co-sponsor of such a bill in 2003 and 2004, before he became speaker of the Florida state House. Bush, whose wife was born and raised in Mexico and who speaks fluent Spanish, also championed the legislation.

“Someone who's been living here for almost all their lives, going through their education here and doing exactly what we ask them to do, there should not be a barrier to their entry to college," Bush said in 2006.

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In the e-mail Tuesday to National Journal, Bush softened his support slightly for the issue by suggesting that the tuition breaks are harder to justify in a ragged economy.

“In times of cutbacks, it would not be as high a priority as it would be in times of abundance," he said. In the email, he also insisted he would have required "many years" residency in state for students to be eligible for the tuition breaks. The Texas law, as well the Florida proposals, had a three-year residency requirement.

The distinctions Bush made recall the delicate balancing act performed by Rubio in his 2010 campaign. Running as the conservative antidote to the more moderate Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio was forced to explain why a half-dozen bills cracking down on illegal immigration collapsed under his leadership of the House.

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Without renouncing his support for the tuition breaks, Rubio said during the campaign that he had other priorities as House speaker and that he believed immigration — particularly protecting the border — is a federal responsibility.

“As he said throughout the 2010 campaign and continues to say today, he believes that a consensus exists to help a limited number of young people who were brought here by their parents as young children and have worked hard, exhibited good moral character, and want to contribute to our nation's future in a meaningful way by becoming part of American society and attending college or joining our armed forces," said Rubio spokesman Alex Burgos.

Burgos added that Rubio opposes the federal DREAM Act, which would allow children of illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military to earn legal status. Perry also opposes that legislation.

The article, "Perry's Not the Only GOP Star to Support Tuition Breaks for Illegal Immigrants' Kids," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Austin v. Boston

  1. Closed captioning of: Austin v. Boston

    >>> so rick perry and mitt romney are going toe to toe in their battle but the party's flirtation with governor chris christie underscores a troubling point for both campaigns. there are some republicans that apaerptly aren't satisfied with the current crop of candidates. ray sullivan and eric ferinstrom join us. austin and boston. ray sullivan , let me start with you and get your reaction to chris christie 's apparent still remaining flirtation with the campaign.

    >> governor christie is an impressive guy and impressive governor. we are in the arena, however. the governor's continuing to crisscross the country talking about jobs. we're spending a lot of time this week highlighting governor romney 's long record of flip-flops, and we're continuing to build our campaign infrastructure, endorsements in new hampshire and iowa and across the board. of course fund-raising deadline rapidly approaching.

    >> ray, are you at all concerned, though, that this latest uptick in interest by big republican donors is a direct reaction to disappointment in governor perry 's debate performances?

    >> not at all. we're continuing to ground -- to blow through this time, to continue to build our campaign and infrastructure. you're going to have strong points, strong weeks, weak weeks in a campaign. the key is to power through, to continue to build, to continue to talk about jobs and the economy, to continue to highlight the flip-flops from governor romney in our case, and to build a strong, capable, positive campaign going forward.

    >> eric , let me ask you a similar question. all of this talk, it was a buildup to try to get rick perry in the race. he gets many. it is a buildup now to get chris christie in the race. why shouldn't this be seen as a rejection of sorts by a large chunk of republicans of mitt romney ?

    >> well, look, with respect to chris christie , he is a fine fellow, a good governor. i can't predict what he's going to do, whether he gets in or stays out won't change the fact that mitt romney is the only major candidate in this race who's had a career in the private economy . and we think that private sector experience is essential to getting this country back on track. just electing another career politician isn't going to do the job.

    >> are you seeinging some -- are you concerned that fund raising is is going to take a hit, for instance, this month? and eric , this is for you. because of this continued flirtation? do you worry, for instance, it's going to slow down momentum for the entire republican party ?

    >> well, with respect to fundraising, you know, the governor's first quarter, first reporting period in the race, he raised $18 million. we're not going to do that for this second successive quarter. we expect to be outraised by rick perry . his finance team has been talking about 400 bundlers that they have on board. there was a report yesterday in a dallas newspaper that they raised $20 million in the first three days of his announcement. we expect he'll do very well. he's the governor of the second largest state in the union. he is the chairman of the republican nors association, he's got a good deal of fund-raising experience. we expect him to do very well.

    >> i always find it interesting. campaigns will praise the other side when it comes to fund-raising expectations. ray sullivan , i want to move to immigration and give you a chance to react to something that chris christie said last night about immigration. here's what he said at the reagan library .

    >> ip every child who comes to new jersey to be educated. but i do not believe that for those people who came here illegally that we should be subsidizing with taxpayer money through in- state tuition. and let me be very clear from my perspective. that is not a heartless position. that is a commonsense position.

    >> the heartless comment in particular, it's what governor perry said you don't have a heart if you're against this. does governor perry -- does the campaign regret that remark?

    >> no. the fact of the matter is that the state of texas does not subsidize. every student in texas who is a resident for three years, who's graduated from a texas high school , and who is admitted to college can pay in- state tuition. this is a residency issue. these are t, students, kids who have been here for a long time, and that's a decision the legislature made in 2001 , ten years ago, with just four dissenting votes. when it comes to immigration, no one has been more vocal, no one has been more alarmist in terms of the federal government 's failure to secure the border . we've seen the violence at our border . governor perry 's put the texas rangers , hundreds of millions of dollars, he's called for national guard troops and border patrol agents to secure that border . the failure is that the federal government , when rick perry is president of the united states , that border will be secure. we know how to do it. we've worked to do that in texas . that will be a major priority.

    >> eric , when it comes to one of mitt romney 's issues in this primary, it's been to win over rank-and-file conservatives who are skeptical of mitt romney . it's something governor perry attempted to bring up last week, how conservative is mitt romney . how real that criticism?

    >> let's talk about the issue of illegal immigration , because i don't think there's a greater issue dividing rick perry from mitt romney . when mitt romney was governor, the democrats in his legislature is sent him a bill to provide in- state tuition to illegal immigrants . governor romney vetoed that bill. when that same bill was sent to rick perry , he signed it. what does that mean? what it means is is that an illegal immigrant -- and they have 16,000 of them now in the public college system of texas -- is able to attend the university of texas at a discount that's equal to $100,000 over four years of d --

    >> there's no discount at all. kids in our state pay -- they are --

    >> texas residents --

    >> they are texas residents. they pay texas tuition. that is a decision the legislature has made. there is no subsidy. there's no discount.

    >> that's the problem. they're not residents. ray, this is the problem.

    >> eric , they have been -- they have been living -- they have been living in the state --

    >> not residents of the united states .

    >> they have been living in the state for years. it is a federal government failure.

    >> finish your point and i'll let ray respond.

    >> my point is this, and i think this is why rick perry has run into trouble with rank-and-file republican voters on this issue, they are not residents of the united states . they have illegally entered this country. one of the reasons they come is because of magnets like in- state tuition where they can get a $100,000 benefit over --

    >> eric , what about the fact that they also agree that they are going to pursue legal residency status in exchange for this program as a way to sort of get them legally on the right track?

    >> ray, i know that rick perry and his entire team feel very strongly about these policies that in our view encourage illegal immigration . we think they act as a magnet to bring even more illegal immigrants into this country. it was wrong for massachusetts. that's why governor romney vetoed that bill. it's quite puzzling as to why rick perry would have signed that same bill in texas .

    >> ray, let me ask you, then, that question that eric just posed. how is it not a magnet to encourage mexican immigrants to bring their children across the boarder?

    >> there is no encouragement. these are kids who have been in texas because the federal government has failed to secure the border . they have to go -- they are required nationally to be admitted to school, k through 12, and they are texas residents like every other texas resident because of that federal government failure. they are -- they get in- state -- they pay the same tuition rate as every other texas kid. there's no subsidy. there's no discount. there's no break. i would comment, also, that governor romney 's tune has changed on this issue like so many issues in the past, whether it was stimulus or race to the top or obama care. he was one of the big supporters of the kennedy immigration bill back in the '90s. this is a johnny-come-lately to this issue. we live border security every day in our state . we recognize the border must be secured. the federal government has failed. we have put our money where our mouth is in this state to secure the border , to send the rangers, to fight the violence there, and perry will do that when he's in the white house .

    >> eric , respond to this comment, though, about the fact this is a new position for governor romney .

    >> on in- state tuition, no, it's not. we received a bill to that effect. governor romney vetoed it. i would like to just elaborate a little bit. i have a 17-year-old son, he's a senior in high school , he lives in massachusetts with me, and he's currently looking at colleges. if he applies to and is accepted at the university of texas , the cost of tuition for him is $32,000 a year. but an illegal immigrant from texas gets to pay a reduced rate of to $9,000. that's wrong. and this is what -- this is what has upset and frustrated many republicans and people outside our party.

    >> if your son --

    >> that while we may say yes to legal immigration, we also have the rule of law in this country, and it has to be --

    >> i'm going to have to leave it there, eric . you got the last word. ray, you had the first word. i'll reverse it the next time we have you on. austin and boston.


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