Gov. Rick Perry’s dramatic tumble from the top of the Republican primary heap can be partly attributed to his immigration woes. An endorsement from controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who joined Perry on the campaign trail Tuesday in New Hampshire, could be a campaign strategy as Perry takes a harder stance on such issues.
In a party with plenty of candidates claiming to be tough on illegal immigration, it didn't play well when Perry defended his 2001 approval of a bill extending in-state tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants. Perry said in one September debate that opponents of such a law "don't have a heart," for which he drew fierce criticism from fellow Republicans. Now, the Perry campaign hopes Arpaio’s support will help shore up his credibility on the issue.
Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News
"I think it does have some kind of possibility, but it's kind of like Perry has dug a very, very deep hole and Arpaio is throwing him a rope to maybe pull himself out of the hole,” said Ronald Mortensen, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization that pushes for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
Perry coupled the endorsement from Arpaio with a promise that, as president, he'll detain and deport anyone who crosses the border illegally. Mortensen said the strategy might take the spotlight off of Perry's immigration record.
"In the past, he has supported in-state tuition, he has opposed the fence and has opposed E-Verify — which is a very critical element of drying up the jobs and the incentive for people to come in,” Mortensen said. “So the problem is now, he's trying to say, ‘I'm going to do something and become tougher, and trust me, I will do it.’”
The Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, which takes a hard line on illegal immigration issues, said the "heartless" remark ended Perry's presidential campaign. A spokesman for the group declined a taped interview but said people who are really paying attention to immigration policy won’t be fooled by Arpaio’s endorsement.
Others also questioned the value of such an endorsement, citing controversy surrounding Arpaio. The sheriff is being investigated for various charges, including discrimination, unconstitutional search and seizure, and misuse of funds.
Jay Root, who covers the Perry campaign for The Texas Tribune, attended Tuesday's endorsement announcement.
"If you go on to get the nomination, then, yeah, I could see possibly there being some blow-back on that,” Root said. “But I think the primary is a very conservative electorate and Perry's trying to shore up his support.”
A recent New Hampshire poll put Perry at about 2 percent, trailing front-runner Mitt Romney by 32 points. Perry sits at about 7 percent in Iowa, where the GOP caucus will be held in just over a month.
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