Jeb Bush Sides With Perry on Tuition Breaks for Illegal Immigrant Kids

The Texas governor isn't the only GOP star to back the policy, and the Republican Party's immigration debate shows a rift between the establishment and grassroots

Jeb Bush - AP Photo:John Raoux - banner.jpg

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.

"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.

"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.

"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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Image credit: John Raoux/AP

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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