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Perry, Democrats Spar Over Immigration Policy Shift

Gov. Rick Perry calls President Obama's newsmaking decision on immigration policy "amnesty" and "an election-year tactic." Democrats say Perry's position on the issue conflicts with his defense of in-state tuition.

Gov. Rick Perry on May 29, 2012, watching television returns after speaking at the party for Charles Schwertner's victory in the Texas Senate race for District 5.

Is Gov. Rick Perry's opposition to Barack Obama's newsmaking pivot on immigration a policy shift of its own?

Supporters of the stalled federal DREAM Act welcomed Friday's news that the Obama administration will begin issuing work permits and granting relief from deportation to some young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The same people have lauded the Texas law that allows some illegal immigrants access to in-state tuition at public universities and state financial aid.

Though Perry has publicly defended what some call the Texas DREAM Act, which he signed into law in 2001, a statement released by his office Friday called the Obama directive an “election-year tactic to bypass Congress and arbitrarily grant amnesty to potentially millions of illegal immigrants.”

Critics argue that Perry's new position on the issue is in conflict with his earlier one.

“I think the Governor’s position absolutely makes no sense given how much he defended the in-state tuition provision,” said Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña. “He obviously felt a backlash from the right, and I think he’s trying to scale back on his support because he saw how much it angered his base.”

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry, said the policies aren't comparable. “First off, Gov. Perry has never bypassed Texas lawmakers on this issue,” she said. “It was a measure that passed overwhelmingly through the Legislature.”

Additionally, she said, Texas would not have had to grapple with how to deal with the population affected by the policy if the federal government had adequately dealt with the border. “In Texas, we have to make common sense decisions to deal with the failure of the federal government to uphold the rule of law on issues regarding immigration,” she said.

Obama has rejected the way critics like Perry have characterized the new policy. "Let’s be clear: This is not amnesty; this is not immunity,” he said on Friday. “This is not a path to citizenship, and it’s not a permanent fix. This is a temporary stop-gap measure that lets us focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven and patriotic young people.”

There are key differences between the new federal policy, which does not include mechanisms for its beneficiaries to apply for legal permanent residency status, and the federal DREAM Act, which does. And there are differences still between that and the Texas policy, which provides lower tuition and aid for those eligible students who sign an affidavit committing to pursue legal status as soon as possible.

At a GOP presidential debate in September 2011, Perry famously sparked a backlash when he addressed critics of the Texas policy, which he signed in 2001, saying, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart." He later apologized and walked the statement back, calling it “inappropriate” and “probably a bit over-passionate.”

In his statement, Perry said the Obama administration "has failed to provide a secure border, which is essential to national security, and is instead granting blanket amnesty to those who have broken our laws. Failed border security and immigration policies have created a magnet for those who came in the first place."

Frazier argued that it was the feds' inability to secure the border that put Texas in a position where it had to make a difficult economic decision in 2001: “We could either give children — who were brought here through no fault of their own, who’ve done the work, who have been accepted to the university, who have been living here for years — the option to have an education so they can contribute to our society, otherwise they are going to end up on the welfare rolls. That is not in the best interest of Texans or our economy.”

In fiscal year 2010, the roughly 16,500 students who attended public universities after establishing residency under the provisions of the “Texas DREAM Act” only made up about 1 percent of the state’s total student population. More than 2,100 of those students cumulatively received roughly $7.8 million in state aid.

Acuña questioned why the governor would support such a policy and investment toward education if he did not support issuing work permits. “Why would it make sense to say it’s okay to go to college if they’re not going to be able to put that degree to good use afterwards?” she asked.

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