When the 2012 Republican presidential contest began, political observers weren’t forecasting that illegal immigration would be a defining issue. Conventional wisdom held that the economy, the president's stimulus package, and “Obamacare” were what mattered to GOP voters.
But for Rick Perry, the Texas governor and the apparent frontrunner for the Republican nomination, immigration suddenly has become a serious liability.
He came under sustained attack from his rivals at last Thursday’s debate in Florida for signing a 2001 Texas law granting in-state tuition rates at state universities to illegal immigrant students.
One of the memorable lines of that debate and perhaps of the 2012 campaign will be Perry’s attempted rebuttal of his critics over the Texas law: “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.”
Why conservatives object
“I would be shocked if Gov. Perry uses this ‘heart’ line again and I suspect he immediately regretted saying it,” said Steven Duffield, a former aide to Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and a Republican strategist who oversaw the writing of the 2008 GOP platform.
“Rightly or wrongly, many activists hear ‘you have no heart’ as a dog whistle for ‘you people are racist,’ which obviously enrages them," Duffield said. "This has been true since the Kennedy-McCain ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ battles in 2006-2007.”
Duffield is not supporting any of the Republican candidates right now.
Another Republican who is neutral in the race, Washington state GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur, said liberals and progressives routinely accuse Republicans of being heartless, “so when Republicans hear one of their own use it, they have a particularly adverse reaction to it because they’ve heard it from the Left for so long. I think it was a poor choice of words by Gov. Perry.”
Wilbur said Perry “just hasn’t been able to explain himself, and he’s going to flame out if he doesn’t find a way to better explain himself to voters in these debates.”
What Perry might have said
What Perry ought to have said, Wilbur argued, is that a 1982 Supreme Court decision requires states to provide kindergarten-through-grade 12 public education for illegal immigrant children. And the Texas tuition program could be seen as a logical extension of that court-imposed requirement.
“I was at a Republican barbecue yesterday and when I explained the Supreme Court decision and that they (the students) have lived in the state ... and they’ve been educated K-12, and it’s not really right to look at them at say, ‘OK, we’re ending your education now,’ when I explained that, most people accepted it,” Wilbur said. “But they said, ‘why didn’t Perry explain it?’”
The furor over in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students illustrates how much the political environment of 2001, when Perry signed the Texas measure into law, differs from that of today.
As governor, Perry succeeded George W. Bush who appealed to Latino voters when he ran for president in 2000 with the slogan “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande.”
The tuition uproar also shows that being from Texas and reflecting the consensus in that state on the illegal immigrant issue puts Perry at odds not only with the Republican mainstream in other parts of the nation, but even with conservative Democrats in states such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Perry's rival, Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts in 2004, vetoed a proposal to allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.
The 2008 Republican platform specifically condemned laws such as the one Perry signed. State governments, it said, should not be allowed “to flout the federal law barring them from giving in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens ...”
Lessons of last year's votes on Dream Act
Perry strategists might have sensed early on that this issue would cause trouble by looking at last December’s votes in Congress on the Dream Act, a bill supported by Obama that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who were under age 30 if they’d entered the United States before their sixteenth birthday, had a clean criminal record, and had a high school diploma or GED. The Dream Act also made them eligible for federal student loans and work-study programs.
The Senate Democrats voting “no” on the Dream Act last December were Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.
Only three Republican senators voted “yes” — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Robert Bennett of Utah, and Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Remarkably, all three have been at war with conservative activists in their states: Murkowski lost the GOP nomination to Tea Party challenger Joe Miller and won last November as a write-in, Bennett lost his party’s nomination to the more conservative Mike Lee who won in the general election, and Lugar is facing a challenge from Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock in next year’s primary.
In the House, only eight of 216 Republicans voted for the Dream Act, while 38 Democrats voted no, including five from Pennsylvania and four from Ohio.
Perry team puzzled at reaction
Despite the evidence that leniency toward illegal immigrant students is now unpopular even outside conservative districts, the Perry team is genuinely bewildered by how strongly conservatives have reacted to the in-state tuition issue. One reason: the legislation was not particularly controversial in Texas. It passed with opposition from just four state legislators, a fact Perry often brings up.
Perry’s argument that “we need to be educating these children” because without a college education “they will become a drag on our society” is a case that Texas business leaders have supported.
On the federal Dream Act, Perry’s campaign sees his position as wholly different from "amnesty" through a national program that allows a path to citizenship. But his team has not done a good job of explaining exactly what the differences are between the bill he signed into law and the one Obama supports.
Perry can’t easily disentangle himself now. He is in a bind as far as backing away from his position, because the entire premise of Perry's argument against Romney is based on portraying him as the flip-flopper in the Republican race.
Romney faces his own pitfalls
For Romney, the immigration issue poses both an opportunity and a pitfall, as he learned when he ran for the GOP nomination four years ago.
In a November 2007 debate, he assailed Rudy Giuliani, one of his rivals for the nomination, for protecting illegal immigrants in New York City by maintaining it as a “sanctuary city.”
Giuliani fired back that Romney himself owned “a sanctuary mansion,” a reference to a Boston Globe report that that Romney had employed a landscaping company at his home in Belmont, Mass. that used non-citizens.
And former Obama aide Bill Burton, who now runs an organization called Priorities USA Action, in an email to supporters over the weekend, skewered “Romney’s retreat from previous support for a pathway to citizenship in immigration reform.” In 2006, when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney said illegal immigrants who “are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process towards application for citizenship ...”
Burton and other Democrats, of course, welcome the Republican wrangle over illegal immigration, since they can try to use it as a wedge to split Latino voters from the GOP. “Their right-wing talking points in this primary season on education, job creation, immigration and taxes will not be forgotten,” Burton said in his e-mail.
It’s worth noting that in the crucial state of Florida (29 electoral votes) all three Cuban-American House members voted for the Dream Act last year. The job of the eventual GOP nominee will be to explain to these members and to Latino voters exactly why opposing the Dream Act is the right thing to do.
NBC News reporters Carrie Dann and Garrett Haake contributed to this story.