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Is Perry Tough Enough on Immigration — for Republicans?

As Gov. Rick Perry adjusts to his front-runner status for the Republican presidential nomination, his opponents are planting seeds of doubt about how tough the border state’s longest-serving governor has been on illegal immigration.

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The conservative pundit Ann Coulter has called Gov. Rick Perry “a little bit too much like George Bush” on immigration — and she doesn't mean it as a compliment. Tea Party loyalists have decried Perry’s opposition to a border fence and Arizona-style enforcement laws. And Mitt Romney has taken not-so-veiled jabs at Perry, criticizing officials who provide “incentives that promote illegal immigration.”

As Perry adjusts to his  front-runner status for the Republican presidential nomination, his opponents are planting seeds of doubt about how tough the border state’s longest-serving governor has been on illegal immigration, from his compassion for immigrant students to the tightrope he has walked between securing the border and protecting the state’s symbiotic relationship with Mexico. Critics hope his track record —which some have generalized as tough on security, gentle on people — will be a complicating factor for the Republican faithful.

“You can’t even have an honest discussion about the economy without taking into consideration illegal immigration,” said Katrina Pierson, a member of the Dallas Tea Party’s steering committee. “Governor Perry has not met the standards, for me, to be the president of the United States if he can’t even address the real issues in Texas.” 

The governor’s campaign counters that a serious discussion about immigration reform cannot take place until the border is secure. “The Obama administration has failed to do so, but as president, Governor Perry will deploy adequate resources, manpower and technology to get the job done,” said Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for Perry's campaign.

Perry’s first immigration-related move as governor was likely his most controversial: In 2001, Texas became the first state in the nation to grant in-state college tuition rates and financial aid to immigrant children, regardless of their legal status. In 2009, roughly 1 percent of Texas college students — about 12,000 students — benefited from the law.  

Two years later, Perry joined forces with Vicente Fox, then the president of Mexico, to advocate for reforms to guest worker laws. Faced with immigration questions from Lou Dobbs on CNN in 2003, Perry said Texas had a “close, complex” relationship with Mexico, and that businesses relied on immigrants for affordable labor. To that end, Perry has split with the platform of the Texas Republican Party, asserting that an Arizona-style immigration enforcement law — in which authorities are required to question people about their legal status — is not a good fit for Texas.

“We have to understand why millions of people come here and why many more have died trying,” Perry said in his 2007 inaugural address. “It is for something as basic as the freedom to find a job and feed their families.”

Perry’s compassion ends where he believes Texas’ security concerns begin. He has never wavered in his desire to secure the 1,200-mile Texas-Mexico border with manpower, not “preposterous” fencing. Or in his frustration with the federal government, which he believes has not adequately protected Texas from the drug violence raging across the Rio Grande.

In 2005, Perry announced a $10 million state program to boost border patrols and upgrade radio systems along the border. A year later, he unveiled plans to install hundreds of video cameras — a multimillion-dollar “virtual” wall that in its first four years proved overly ambitious, netting few arrests. Though Perry had expressed support for guest worker reform two years before, when President George W. Bush pushed for it in Washington in 2005, the governor’s frustration with the federal government kept him from supporting it.

Meanwhile, Perry has remained at war with the Obama administration over his request in 2010 for 1,000 National Guard troops along the Texas-Mexico border; he got 250. In August, he asked the federal government to reimburse Texas $350 million — the estimated cost of imprisoning illegal immigrants in state lockups.

The immigration debate has at times been a minefield for Perry, who has had to balance the ardently anti-immigration views of his base with the backing of his major donors, some of whom often rely on immigrants for their workforce. And the governor’s rhetoric — and his tone — has ebbed and flowed, coinciding with his re-election bids and a state Legislature that is growing ever redder.

In 2009, he endorsed since-passed legislation requiring Texans to present a form of photo identification to vote — which some opponents believed targeted minority voters. And this year, in the lead-up to his run for president, Perry deemed a measure to outlaw so-called sanctuary cities in Texas a legislative emergency. The bill would have stripped state funding for municipalities that banned local law enforcement from inquiring into the immigration status of individuals detained for any crime. Though Perry tried to differentiate the bill from the strict Arizona law, the legislation ultimately failed, largely because of an 11th-hour push from Republican businessmen — some of the governor’s own financial backers — who opposed the bill.

Despite his recent efforts, Perry has largely remained opposed to legislation backed by the most conservative lawmakers, including efforts he calls "divisive" to repeal the undocumented students bill and measures that would end birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants.

This stance has been highly unpopular with the Tea Party: “Governor Perry has been governor for 10 years, and we’ve not had enough interior enforcement of immigration laws,” said JoAnn Fleming, the chairwoman of the Texas Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee.

But it has not won him many fans among progressives either, whose counterpunch strategy is to keep the memory of sanctuary cities fresh in the minds of Latino voters until the 2012 general. “No candidate will be more effective at alienating Hispanic voters than Rick Perry,” said Shannon Perez, the political coordinator in Texas for the Service Employees International Union.

And neither side particularly trusts the conservative business community. Last week, an e-mail from some of the same Republican donors who urged Perry to back down on sanctuary cities surfaced, offering the governor’s critics some low-hanging fruit. In the message, Norman Adams, a co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Policy, congratulated members for helping raise $205,000 for Perry’s presidential campaign and said sensible immigration policies are the key to courting Latinos.

For Perry, criticism from both sides of the political spectrum is hardly new. In past gubernatorial races, former Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have accused him of being lax on immigration — to no avail. On the presidential trail, and as recently as Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate, Perry has taken heat from Romney, who, trailing Perry in several national polls, has made a point of reminding voters that as Massachusetts governor, he vetoed legislation would have provided in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and strengthened the authority state troopers have to enforce immigration laws.

Perry has said that young students should not be punished for their parents’ decisions, that Arizona-style enforcement laws are not appropriate for a state that is 38 percent Latino, and that a border fence will do nothing but bolster the “35-foot ladder business.” But his latest talking points also include opposition to amnesty and to a national Dream Act, which would provide a path to legal residency for some children living in the country illegally.

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