For Rick Perry, Immigration Could Be Key Issue

HANOVER, N.H. – The conventional wisdom about the 2012 election is that the decisive issue will be the nation’s sluggish economy but, while that might still turn out to be true, other issues have made waves in the GOP race in recent weeks.

Take immigration. It’s all but a dead issue in Washington these days. With Congress gridlocked, little to nothing is actually getting done. And as evidenced by last year’s failure of the federal DREAM Act, a bill that would have helped undocumented students who came to the United States before age 16 become legal residents after five years by completing higher education or military service, no headway was made on the immigration front, even when Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate.

But now the hot-button issue is once again in the headlines, thanks to one of the GOP field’s most controversial candidates, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. No other candidate has the kind of background on immigration that Perry has, seeing as he runs a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. But it remains to be seen whether that background will help or hurt him.

Perry has come under fire in recent weeks for signing a bill that lets illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities in Texas. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney pounced on the issue, leading to a heated back-and-forth between the two rivals. Perry even suggested at one point that not supporting education for illegal immigrants is akin to not having a heart because the children have been brought to this country “by no fault of their own.”

“I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said. “We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society.”

Perry later walked back on that charge , but not before Romney continued to fan the flames of the issue, arguing that it made no sense to give illegal immigrants a discount of nearly $100,000 to attend Texas state schools.

“My friend Gov. Perry says if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition on illegals, then you don’t have a heart,” Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando last month. “I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart. It means you have a heart and a brain.”

On a swing through Iowa last weekend, Perry fielded questions about the in-state tuition issue at all his Saturday events, describing the decision as one based on simple economics.

“The issue was really driven by economics because of the federal government’s again failure  to secure that border and us having to deal with it,” he said.

That is not the only part of Perry’s immigration background that has come under fire. The Texas governor also attracted criticism for saying it was unrealistic to build a fence along the Mexican border.

“Of course we build a fence and of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who have come here illegally,” Romney argued at a September GOP debate in Tampa.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said, “For Rick to say that you can’t secure the border is pretty much a treasonous comment.”

For a candidate who hails from one of the most conservative states in the country and has a proven record of emphasizing immigration enforcement, Perry is now on the receiving end of a steady barrage of criticism. At the helm of Texas, Perry cracked down on so-called sanctuary cities, imposed tough restrictions on driver’s licenses for immigrants, and sent armed Texas Rangers to the border while demanding more federal boots on the ground. He also opposed the DREAM Act and a swift path to legalization for illegal immigrants.

Perry’s strong-armed approach has been met with criticism by Hispanic leaders who have accused him of being anything but moderate, despite the flak he has received from his right-wing rivals.

Most Republicans now emphasize border security above all else, as the party’s stance on immigration has seemed to shift further and further to the right. Many of the Republican contenders for the White House are against any attempts to address the legal status of the country’s illegal immigrant population, with some instead supporting deporting all of them.

For Perry and the other candidates, immigration could now prove to be a more crucial issue than anticipated. After all, Latinos are the largest and fastest-growing voting bloc,  and they are prominent in key swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico and especially Nevada and Florida. The latter two could potentially hold decisive primaries in late January.

While the economy could ultimately be decisive in this election, immigration, as the past few weeks have proven, is an issue that will be fiercely debated, especially with Perry at the forefront of the fight for the nomination.