Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ongoing deployment of 1,000 National Guard troops along the Rio Grande may be helpful in his second try for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. The move also continues a distinctively Texan balancing act on immigration that Perry has been maintaining for well over a decade.
The question is whether Perry represents the future of his party on immigration — or whether his nuanced positions on the issue will again become a liability in national politics.
“It takes a very skilled politician to come across as tough on border security while, at the same time, not turning off the Hispanic voter out there,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “His rhetoric is measured. He doesn’t say stupid things.”
Asked last year in an interview how the Republican Party can do a better job improving its standing with Hispanics, Perry said, “Well, I think we’ve got a blueprint in Texas for how you do it.”
Perry, who declined a request for an interview, has built a reputation as a border-security hard-liner. The current operation marks the third time since 2007 that he has dispatched the Guard to the border.
Even during the years when his gubernatorial predecessor, George W. Bush, was in the White House, Perry frequently criticized the federal government as lax. At one point, he accused the Bush administration of running a “de facto catch and release program” for illegal immigrants who committed crimes in Texas.
Perry has taken his tough stance without alienating Hispanics, who make up more than 30 percent of the state’s population. In his final bid for reelection in 2010, Perry won nearly 40 percent of the Latino vote, a solid showing for a Republican. He supported — and continues to defend — the groundbreaking 2001 state law allowing qualified illegal immigrants to pay low in-state tuition rates at Texas colleges.
But his critics say Perry’s posture is shifting as he positions himself for another presidential run. While the governor maintains that the current National Guard deployment is necessary to help federal officials deal with a flood of unaccompanied children arriving from Central America, many Democrats say it is just for show.
“He’s always done what he believed would benefit him most,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who accuses the governor of exaggerating the crime and violence on the border. “I think it’s a calculation. He feels burned about what happened in 2012, and he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again in 2016. It’s also an issue where he has an advantage over others running in the race, as an executive in a border state.”
During the 2012 primary campaign, Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, pummeled the governor for the in-state tuition law.
“To go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That’s $22,000 a year,” Romney said.
“I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry retorted.
Later, Perry said of the criticism he took, “I will suggest that maybe I didn’t explain those positions well enough.”
More than other border states, Texas traditionally has had a live-and-let-live attitude toward peaceful illegal immigration, which has helped shape its culture and its economy. The Lone Star State has never experienced anything like the backlash that led to California’s passage in 1994 of Proposition 187, denying public services to illegal immigrants, or the 2010 Arizona law that gave police broad powers to stop and detain people suspected of lacking documentation.
When Texas’s in-state-tuition bill passed, it had the support of virtually the entire legislature, including all but two Republicans in the House and three in the Senate.
“We must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom, ‘We don’t care where you come from, but where you are going, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there.’ And that vision must include the children of undocumented workers,” Perry said in a speech several months later. “That’s why Texas took the national lead in allowing such deserving young minds to attend a Texas college at a resident rate.”
That same year, however, Perry vetoed a measure that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get Texas driver’s licenses. His concern, he said, was that the bill contained insufficient safeguards to verify the authenticity of foreign birth certificates.
“The driver’s license bill failed to address a very critical public policy and public safety issue,” Perry wrote at the time.
Mark P. Jones, a political scientist and Latin American studies expert at Rice University, noted that another test of Perry’s ability to finesse the immigration issue came in 2011. At the time, the national immigration debate had been inflamed by the passage of the Arizona law, and there were some in the Texas legislature who wanted to pass their own version.
Perry defused the push for a harsher law, Jones said, by championing a bill that would have banned “sanctuary cities,” communities where police are barred from inquiring about the immigration status of those they arrest.
The measure was a largely symbolic one that the governor knew would not pass, Jones said. “It fit perfectly with Perry’s general method of operation.”
But even in Texas, the GOP has moved rightward on immigration in recent years, with the rise of the tea party movement and increased drug-gang violence on the border. In 2012, for instance, the state party adopted as part of its platform a business-backed “Texas solution” calling for a national guest-worker program. At this year’s convention, the party voted to remove that plank.
On the largest question hanging over the immigration debate going forward — what to do about the estimated 11 million people now living in this country illegally — Perry has not been specific.
He has said he opposes amnesty. He also acknowledged in a 2013 interview that “you’re not going to go round them up and send them back to their country of origin.”
But all of that, he insisted, is an argument for another day.
“Securing the border has to be dealt with and, I would suggest to you, first,” Perry said then. “I don’t think the American people trust Congress to have an immigration bill and secure the border. I just don’t think they trust them, because they haven’t seen the will. For 20 years or more, they have not seen the will in Washington, D.C., to secure the border.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.