Border Issue Is Tricky in Texas Race

The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 4:46 PM

AUSTIN, Texas -- Locked in a four-way race for re-election, Republican Gov. Rick Perry is walking a 1,200-mile political tightrope _ the Texas-Mexico border.

He has to look tough to fiercely anti-immigration Republican voters. At the same time, some of his biggest donors are homebuilders, poultry processors and ranchers who depend on immigrants to fill jobs they say native-born Americans don't want.

Then there's the tricky matter of supporting President Bush, Perry's predecessor, while looking strong enough to take on the federal government when border sheriffs and residents complain they are doing all the heavy lifting to keep Texas secure.

It is a balancing act that has left him open to attack from his three major opponents, Democrat Chris Bell and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman.

Texas is home to roughly 1.4 million illegal immigrants, more than any other state but California, according to the federal government. An average of 54,000 illegal immigrants settled in Texas every year between 2000 and 2005, more than in any other state.

Perry avoided the border security issue for months, insisting it was Washington's responsibility. At the same time, drug-related violence escalated in Laredo and the governors of Arizona and New Mexico declared states of emergency on their borders.

Perry began to focus on the issue last October.

He has since provided millions to support Operation Linebacker, an effort by sheriffs along the border to reduce crime, and Operation Rio Grande, a state project that includes putting hundreds of surveillance cameras on volunteers' property and eventually broadcasting the images over the Internet so viewers can let law enforcement know about suspicious activity.

One of his first television ads showed him trekking across the rugged border terrain, promising to secure the border.

Strayhorn has accused the governor of "failed leadership," complaining: "The border has been ignored to the point that ordinary citizens rather than law enforcement officials have been enforcing illegal immigration."

Bell has charged that Perry is turning a serious problem into little more than an online video game and is playing on voters' fears.

"In the Republican Party, you can gin up energy and emotion on the idea that illegal crossing of the border is a big problem," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "They try to elicit an image in people's minds of al-Qaida operatives low crawling across the border with their AK-47s."

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