The comment drew immediate criticism from his rivals, who have called the Texas law a “magnet” for illegal border-crossers, a taxpayer subsidy for lawbreakers and evidence that Perry is not the unwavering conservative he appears to be.
“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,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney told conservative activists Friday morning at the Florida conference of the Conservative Political Action Committee.
It is a line of attack likely to continue as Perry struggles to defend his record on immigration, an issue that has grown more emotional since he signed the Texas DREAM Act in 2001. Many conservatives have favored a no-tolerance attitude toward illegal immigrants in recent years, calling them a threat to public safety and a drain on public resources.
Perry, however, has maintained his support for a program that has given tuition breaks to more than 32,000 students attending Texas colleges. The law sparked a national movement to pass a federal version, which has been championed by President Obama and became a bitterly contested issue that failed in Congress last year.
Perry has said he opposes the federal version, calling it “amnesty” because it includes a path to citizenship. The Texas law does not have such a provision. Rather, its supporters said it was intended to reduce the barriers to higher education for children brought to the country illegally by their parents or other adults.
The measure applies to undocumented students who have graduated from a Texas high school, lived in the state for three years and signed an affidavit promising to seek legal status. They can become eligible for scholarships and pay in-state tuition rather than international student rates, which are sometimes double and triple the resident fees.
Perry has gotten some praise from his tea party backers for sticking to his guns on the issue. In the debate, Perry explained his view that educating illegal immigrant children prevents them from becoming a drag on society and noted that the DREAM Act passed with bipartisan support.
But he has also taken heat for his opposition to a fence that would stretch the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, which his foes say is further evidence that Perry is soft on one of the Republican Party’s litmus test issues this year.
He tried to reaffirm his conservative credentials on the issue of illegal immigration by noting that his state invested $400 million into border security. He said he sided with Arizona on the state’s controversial law aimed at deporting more illegal immigrants, though in the past he has said that approach is not right for Texas.