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Polling Center: Deflecting Immigration Questions

Uncomfortable questions about in-state tuition might prompt candidates like Greg Abbott to reach into Rick Perry's bag of tricks for an issue that addresses immigration issues without inflaming the wrong voters.

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Last week’s sparring among Republican candidates for lieutenant governor — over who should be crowned most conservative on in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants — quickly bled into the race for the gubernatorial nomination. That forced a response from Attorney General Greg Abbott, a losing proposition for the front-runner in the race to be the GOP’s nominee for governor in 2014.

Abbott’s campaign attempted to clarify his position in a written statement issued by a campaign spokesman. "Greg Abbott believes that the objective of the program is noble," Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch wrote. “But, he believes the law as structured is flawed and it must be reformed.”

That statement stands in stark contrast to the generally restrictive attitudes on immigration policies expressed by GOP primary voters and especially Tea Party identifiers in the past several years of the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. In the February 2013 poll, only 20 percent of Republicans supported in-state tuition for the qualifying children of illegal immigrants. Using a breakdown that gave voters the option of identifying with the Tea Party or one of the two parties, we found that support dropped to 16 percent, and only 30 percent of those who still chose to identify with the Republican label over the Tea Party label supported it.

Abbott is not the first Texas Republican to try to act as the party’s standard-bearer without completely agreeing with Republican primary voters. After all, Gov. Rick Perry signed the now-controversial tuition bill in 2001. Perry even got booed while defending the bill in a 2011 presidential primary debate.

In the 2010 gubernatorial primary, however, moderate elements of Perry’s record drew very little attention because he built up another issue that he used to appeal to the GOP base on immigration: sanctuary cities.

Perry campaigned against both Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison and Democrat Bill White by accusing them of favoring so-called sanctuary cities, in which local authorities allegedly protect illegal immigrants. His accusations were roundly debunked; Perry denied but didn't disprove reports that the Texas Department of Public Safety followed policies similar to those he was criticizing. After handily winning re-election in 2010, the governor put sanctuary cities legislation on his list of emergency items at the beginning of the 2011 session.

The proposed legislation died amid legislative chaos, but conservative attitudes formed around the issue in the Texas GOP. In February 2011, as the Legislature began its work, the UT/TT Poll found that 88 percent of Republicans disapproved of “city governments that choose not to enforce some immigration laws.”

In a differently worded question during the 2012 primary campaign, 55 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Tea Party identifiers thought local law enforcement officials should be required to enforce federal immigration laws. That item included a middle option that gave local law enforcement latitude to enforce the laws or not; 34 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Tea Party identifiers chose that, which actually approximated the status quo in the state. But only 6 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Tea Party identifiers thought cities should be allowed to leave federal immigration laws unenforced.

As much as local control and rejection of the federal government have become mainstays of GOP politics, Republican voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of “sanctuary cities.” It even became something of a cause célèbre among a faction of the Tea Party after the 2011 session ended and Perry had moved on to bigger and better things.

As Abbott seeks to avoid catching stray punches from the anti-immigration lucha libre going on in the lieutenant governor’s race, one wonders if he is searching for a sanctuary city of his own. Such an issue would be tailored to resonate with the GOP base’s restrictive attitudes on immigration, but ideally would also suggest other issues (as sanctuary cities suggested law and order), and would have only the most glancing relationship to reality on the ground, so as not to worry pro-immigration elites.

If Abbott’s team can come up with such an issue, maybe the guys in the other race would jump on the bandwagon, too — a win-win for Team Abbott.

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Immigration Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Sanctuary cities