Perry Seeks Blessing From an Immigration Hardliner

Gov. Rick Perry, who once said he was “intrigued and open” to an amnesty program for Mexican workers in the United States illegally, is now courting the support of a famous immigration hardliner: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona.

Endorsements are often overrated as campaign tools, but an official blessing from the man who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” could help Perry overcome conservative doubts about his relatively moderate positions on the issue of illegal immigration.

During a half-hour interview with the Tribune, Arpaio made it clear that he remained open to the idea: He said he felt a kinship with Texas in general, and a fondness for Perry in particular. Arpaio said he spoke with Perry on the phone last week, and to his campaign aides before that.

Arpaio said it was clear they wanted his endorsement, but he is keeping his powder dry for now.

Audio: Sheriff Arpaio on Perry: "I kind of like the guy."

“I kind of like the guy,” Arpaio said. “I think we need someone that will speak out and be tough, tell it like it and be kind of a regular guy.”

He also said that Perry’s embrace of in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants and past support for a Mexican guest-worker proposal would not keep him from bestowing his blessing on the Texas governor.

“You’ve got to look at the big picture,” he said.

On the other hand, Perry’s insistence that new federal immigration policies shouldn't be discussed until the border is "secure" sparks concern from the law-and-order sheriff. Arpaio is a fierce supporter of using local law enforcement to crack down on illegal immigration, helping to lead the charge for a controversial Arizona law that gives police more authority to arrest illegal immigrants. Perry opposed an Arizona-stye crackdown in Texas and says the federal government should get control of the border first, then consider legal reforms.

“When you say ‘first,’ that means that they don’t have to raid businesses. They don’t have to lock up illegals on the streets — ‘oh let’s not do that, let’s secure the border first,’" Arpaio said. “The border was never going be completely secure. You have to talk about immigration reform at the same time you’re talking about the border.”

Audio: Sheriff Arpaio says "secure border first" talk is a cop-out.

Perry generally gives the Republican base the red meat rhetoric it is looking for, but he has come under fire from his rivals and conservative activists for striking a more moderate tone on immigration. The governor is frequently asked about his stands on immigration when he takes questions from voters at campaign stops, and an independent group supporting rival candidate Michele Bachmann has cut an ad bashing Perry on the issue.

In recent years Perry has largely remained mum about what the government should do to crack down on immigrants who are already here — or the businesses that hire them. But that wasn't always the case.

Audio: Sheriff Arpaio says Perry's moderate stands on immigration are not a deal killer.

A letter Perry wrote to the editor of The Dallas Morning News in 2001, about then-President Bush’s proposal to give amnesty to Mexican workers in the country illegally, echoes the pro-immigrant rhetoric that leading Texas Republicans once proudly embraced.

“I am intrigued and open to the Bush administration's amnesty proposal. Most Texans would agree that it's better to have legal, taxpaying immigrants from Mexico working in the United States than illegal immigrants living in fear of the law and afraid to access basic services,” Perry wrote. “If Mexico implements the reforms President [Vicente] Fox wants and develops a stronger middle class, the goal of a more seamless, transparent border could become a reality.”

(Bush's proposal was never fully fleshed out, and the topic was shelved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. In January 2004 Bush proposed extensive changes to immigration laws and a guest-worker program, but his plan went nowhere.)

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said the governor supported initiatives pushed in the recent legislative session, ultimately unsuccessfully, aimed at punishing businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants and that would allow police officers more latitude in arresting those here illegally.

"The governor is strongly opposed to amnesty since it rewards illegal behavior and penalizes legal immigrants seeking citizenship," Cesinger said. "Gov. Perry believes the border must be secure before America considers immigration reform."

While Arpaio could help Perry shore up his standing with immigration hawks, Arpaio said he is waiting for the governor to actually ask him. The sheriff — known for making inmates wear pink panties and suffer the stifling Arizona heat in makeshift tent jails — said Perry staffers asked for his endorsement but the governor did not when he called about a week ago.

Audio: Sherriff Arpaio says all the candidates want his endorsement

Arpaio endorsed George W. Bush in 2000 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2008. He said both candidates specifically asked him for his endorsement.

Perry "didn't ask outright for my endorsement. But he's not going to get it, if I plan on giving it, until he asks," Arpaio told the Tribune. "Bush asked me. Mitt Romney asked me in the back room. I don't give people endorsements unless they ask."

Romney, now Perry's chief rival for the 2012 GOP nomination, could be asking Arpaio again soon: The sheriff says the former Massachusetts governor is supposed to call him Tuesday.

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