Republicans running for Texas lieutenant governor are practically tripping over themselves to oppose the 2001 law that gives in-state college tuition rates to young undocumented immigrants living in Texas.
But at the top of the GOP primary ballot in the race for governor, where Attorney General Greg Abbott is considered the runaway favorite, it’s been radio silence.
Case in point: A reporter asked Abbott to state his position on the issue after a speech in Austin on Thursday, but he ignored the question and left without talking to the media. It was a similar story for The Dallas Morning News the day before, when the paper reported that Abbott’s campaign took a pass on the controversy.
Late Thursday night, Abbott's campaign finally broke the silence — sort of. In a written statement, Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said Abbott believes the goal of the law is laudable but needs revamping.
"Greg Abbott believes that the objective of the program is noble," Hirsch said. "But, he believes the law as structured is flawed and it must be reformed." Hirsch declined to elaborate but said Abbott would unveil specific policy initiatives on the tuition law and other major issues in coming months.
One aspect of the law that has drawn fire — and is sure to get scrutiny from the Abbott policy team — relates to the provision that requires undocumented students to sign an affidavit promising they will apply for permanent residency. The Austin American Statesman reported in 2010 that the state isn't required to verify whether that is actually happening, a lapse conservatives have criticized.
But Abbott's hyper-careful, muted approach to the hot-button issue speaks volumes about the trouble confronting Republicans who try to balance their outreach to the exploding Hispanic population with their ongoing courtship of Tea Party activists who fiercely oppose any perceived benefits going to illegal immigrants.
“For Attorney General Abbott, the fact that this issue has come up places him right in the middle of one of the central dilemmas facing the Republican Party in Texas, and the Republican Party in the United States for that matter,” said Jim Henson, a Tribune pollster and the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “They have their eye on the increasing Latino vote, but their primary voting base is not taking the same view.”
Polls that Henson has conducted demonstrate the problem: Republicans who identify with the Tea Party oppose discounted in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants by a margin of 76 percent to 16 percent. Hispanics favor it 55-33.
Abbott’s best-known Republican opponent, former GOP chairman Tom Pauken, isn’t shy about his views on the law: He wants to repeal it, just like many Republican candidates in more competitive races do. Pauken, who is hoping to gain traction for his uphill battle by questioning Abbott’s conservative bona fides, accused the attorney general of ducking the tuition issue so he'll have room to recast himself as a moderate should he face Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth in a general election.
“He thinks he’s going to waltz through the primaries without any debate,” Pauken said. “He’s going to move to the middle as soon as the primaries are over.”
For her part, Davis supports keeping what’s known as the Texas DREAM Act, which allows young undocumented immigrants who establish Texas residency and qualify for college admission to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities, her campaign said in an email Thursday.
“Sen. Davis supports the DREAM Act as written and passed by the bipartisan Texas Legislature. She believes that expanding access to quality education in our Texas colleges and universities will secure our state's future, help create high-skill, high-wage jobs and make Texas even stronger,” said Davis spokesman Bo Delp. “All Texans should have an opportunity to contribute to our growing economy, including children who were brought here through no fault of their own.”
The law was relatively uncontroversial when Gov. Rick Perry signed it into law in 2001. But views on illegal immigration hardened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the nation's economic downturn.
A decade later, the issue became a huge liability for Perry when he ran for president, contributing to a big drop in opinion polls long before he put the nail in his coffin with the famous “oops” moment, when he couldn’t remember all the federal departments he wanted to shutter.
Perry ardently defended the law during a nationally televised debate in September 2011, drawing instant rebukes from his fellow candidates and immigration hardliners. It was a shaky debate performance all around, and Perry made the fallout over the tuition issue even worse by insulting those who opposed it.
“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart," he said.
The governor later apologized, saying he respectfully disagreed with those who took issue with the law.
The controversy continues to rage within the Republican electorate. Ted Cruz repeatedly pounded Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst over the issue during the 2012 U.S. Senate race, saying Dewhurst blocked efforts to repeal the law.
Dewhurst, who lost to Cruz, denied the charge and now says he wants to undo it in a fourth term as lieutenant governor. But he has competition in his drive to become the most ardent foe of the in-state tuition law in the four-candidate Republican primary for his job.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has run a TV ad claiming that he is the only candidate in the race who opposes the law. That brought condemnations from the candidates, who all promptly said they wanted to take in-state tuition away from the so-called “dreamers.”
Opponents of the law say the tuition break for undocumented immigrants acts as a magnet for other would-be border crossers. And they contend that the in-state tuition benefit provided to thousands of undocumented immigrants each year comes at the expense of deserving legal residents.
The law could be a major topic in the lieutenant governor’s race all the way to November. The legislator who sponsored the bill in the state Senate, Democrat Leticia Van De Putte of San Antonio, is mulling a run for lieutenant governor and might face off with a candidate pushing the repeal of it.
Van de Putte said she is proud to have sponsored the law, which she says has helped scores of students trapped in legal limbo get a college education. She said the GOP opposition to the law makes it clear that “Republicans want to fight for the Latino vote, but not for Latinos.”
“The U.S. Supreme Court required that these students receive a K-12 education — why, then, wouldn’t we want a bigger return on our mandated investment?” she said. “Instead, they’re pandering to the politics of fear and ignoring common-sense economic policies endorsed by the business community.”
The latest flare-up over the 2001 law comes just as Republicans launch a new effort aimed at making the GOP more attractive to Latinos, who tend to favor Democrats. The Republican National Committee unveiled the initiative in Houston on Wednesday.
Abbott joined the RNC at the announcement but did not mention in-state tuition or other potentially divisive immigration topics. A day later, the new chairman of the group, former state Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg, wasn’t going anywhere near the explosive tuition issue.
“Reasonable people may differ,” he said. “I would encourage all Texans to engage with their elected officials in addressing the question."