What Rick Perry Can Teach the GOP About Immigration

In a 2012 presidential race against hardliners, the Texas governor's moderate record could hurt him, but his candidacy will prompt a closer look at what's worked and what hasn't

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry with Vicente Fox, then the president of Mexico, in the Texas state capitol in 2003. Image credit: Reuters

As he enters the Republican presidential race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is striking some red-meat notes on the subject of immigration. Border security, he says, is a federal responsibility -- and immigration reform will have to wait until the border is secured. Invoking his beloved 10th Amendment, he proposes that in the meantime states should have some latitude to set their own course on the subject. As for Texas, he suggests, unauthorized immigration will not be treated lightly; earlier this year he called for a state law to abolish sanctuary cities, although the bill never made it to his desk.

Set aside the campaign chatter. Perry actually has a relatively moderate record on immigration. In 2001, he signed a law allowing undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools to pay in-state tuition at Texas public universities. Last year he criticized Arizona's strict new immigration enforcement law, and said that it wouldn't be right for Texas. He's called for a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship. Other than this year's campaign against sanctuary cities, there is little in his decade-plus as governor to suggest that he has the appetite for a crackdown on economic migrants. NumbersUSA, a group that campaigns for less immigration, has given him a "D-" -- worse, in their view, than Michele Bachman, Mitt Romney, or Sarah Palin.

Perry has, of course, been hawkish about border security. He has repeatedly said that both border security and immigration reform fall into what he sees as the rather narrow category of Washington's responsibilities, and he argues that the former takes precedence over the latter -- or should, at least. In New Hampshire last week, he told the Union-Leader that the president has been turning "a blind eye" to the border. But, interestingly, he describes border security as a different issue from immigration reform. "Texans in particular enjoy a unique culture that has been greatly enriched by immigrants from all over the world, and especially from Mexico," he wrote in his 2010 book, Fed Up!, adding a comment about how great Tex-Mex food is. He continued: "Yet this has absolutely nothing to do with border security. We can have all the immigration debates we want, but Americans are demanding that the border be secured first."

The distinction between border security and illegal immigration is a sensible one that national observers often fail to grasp. Perry's not saying that unauthorized migration isn't a problem; he clearly thinks that one of the functions of the border-security apparatus is to thwart illegal crossings. He is, however, suggesting that the issues be decoupled. That's canny politics, because it allows him to swat off questions about what he would do on immigration reform.

In any case, Perry's relatively centrist record on immigration might surprise his new national audience. But for Texans, it is of a piece. There are about 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants in Texas, according to the Pew Hispanic Center; they make up about 6.5 percent of the population, and 8.7 percent of the labor force. Given that it has a 1,200-mile land border with Mexico, Texas struggles to keep unauthorized migrants out. But the state is actually quite tolerant of immigration, documented or otherwise. So are its leaders--including Perry's predecessor as governor, George W. Bush, who risked the wrath of his party in a doomed battle for comprehensive immigration reform in 2006 and 2007. This moderate approach is partly about culture and partly about the deep-rooted economic pragmatism that tends to trump all other ideologies in Texas, despite what you may have heard.

Historically, of course, Texas has a close relationship with Mexico. The territory that today comprises Texas was part of Mexico until the Texas Revolution, which marks its 175th anniversary this year. The shared history is obvious along the border, which is studded with bustling twinned cities, from Brownsville and Matamoros in the east to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in the west. In these borderplexes, the disjunct between the United States and Mexico has never been strictly observed. Mexico's bloody drug war has of late kept many people on the safe side of the river, but residents still shuttle back and forth on a daily basis -- to go to work, to visit family, to shop and to go to school. This is one reason why Texans were mostly opposed to the border fence. In some cases, the absurdity is obvious. In 2008 I drove down to the Rio Grande Valley to talk with Eloisa Tamez, a Lipan Apache woman who lives on a patch of land that was deeded to her family by Spain in 1767 -- before the United States even existed. Chatting in her backyard, we watched as a Border Patrol SUV trundled up. The agent, who was from Oklahoma, was startled to receive an amused dressing-down.

That's an outlying example, but the sanguine sentiment persists in the rest of Texas, where about 38 percent of residents are Hispanic, compared to 16 percent for the nation as a whole. The demographics mean that even politicians who are otherwise inclined to a law-and-order approach recognize that you don't want to arbitrarily alienate a large share of the population.

More pragmatically, Texas has realized that immigrants are a net benefit to the state economy. Documented or otherwise, they work, they spend money, they rent and buy houses, they create jobs, and they start businesses. Consequently, it's no benefit to the state if undocumented immigrants are systemically cut off from the public services -- schools, health care, and police protection -- that help people stabilize. That's why most of Texas's major cities have sanctuary policies in place, and why this year's Perry-backed bill thundering against those policies didn't get anywhere.

To be fair, Texas doesn't struggle with the issue as some states do. Undocumented immigration causes genuine difficulties for communities -- it can strain public services or distort local labor markets. Although Texas's unemployment rate is just a bit below the national number at the moment, it famously went throughout the recession without so much anxiety about jobs, thanks in part to population growth.

Incidentally, this isn't just about Mexicans. Texas also has large immigrant populations from Asia, from Africa, and from elsewhere in Latin America. And the embrace of newcomers extends to domestic migrants. Texas's population swelled by more than 4 million between 2000 and 2010. The figure includes immigrants and babies, but also hundreds of thousands of domestic transplants.

So it's clear that migrants have been good to Texas, and it's also clear that Texas has been fair to migrants. This points to the great bipartisan upside of Perry's candidacy: even if you hate his platform, even if his accent makes you queasy, having the governor in the race has prompted a closer look at what Texas is like and why. There are issues where the state lags behind the nation and there are areas where it leads. Immigration is one of the latter.

It may not be a huge issue in this year's presidential election. There has been a dramatic slowdown in unauthorized immigration in recent years, due to increased enforcement efforts and to the fact that America's shuddering economy has reduced the power of the jobs magnet. That means immigration concerns on both sides of the debate are less voluble than they were in 2008. But if it arises, Perry can keep up. If Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney tries to raise the issue, Perry can simply answer that he has more experience on the subject than they do.

The same goes for the general election, should Perry become the nominee. President Obama's efforts to pursue comprehensive immigration reform have been scattershot. At a round-table with Spanish-language media earlier this month, he told journalists that Republicans in Congress are the holdup, and if Latinos want the issue to get traction they should pledge to withhold support from Republicans until something gets going. A majority of Hispanic voters support Democrats in national elections, but people do get tired of empty promises. The administration might be realizing that: On August 18th the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would stop deporting people willy-nilly and focus on undocumented immigrants with criminal records. It was five days after Perry got into the race.

Image credit: Reuters