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Analysis: In Border Crisis, Perry Finds an Advantage

While the federal and state governments squabble over what to do about immigrant children on the Texas-Mexico border, Gov. Rick Perry is scoring political points on an issue of high importance to Republican voters.

Gov. Rick Perry and DPS Director Steve McCraw spoke at a June 23, 2014, news conference following a tour of a federal facility housing unaccompanied minors in Weslaco, Texas. The state is providing $1.3 million per week to step up border patrols.

Even if you believe that Gov. Rick Perry’s motivations are purely about the security of the border between Texas and Mexico, his running dispute with the federal government makes for good politics.

“What has to be addressed is the security of the border,” Perry said on Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “You know that. I know that. The president of the United States knows that. I don't believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is — is secure, and that's the reason there's been this lack of effort, this lack of focus, this lack of resources.”

Federal money for more courts to speed up processing of immigrant children currently housed in the U.S. might be on the way, and the administration is saying publicly that most of those children will be deported. That would be a win for the governor’s position.

In the meantime, Perry is scoring political points. Texas voters put immigration and border security at the top of their list of the most important problems facing the state. In the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 54 percent of Texas voters agreed that undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. should be deported immediately. Republican voters were more emphatic — 74 percent of them support immediate deportation.

The state’s sparring partner — the federal government — has been the governor’s favorite adversary since at least 2009, a year that saw the blooming of the Tea Party. His book Fed Up! came out in November 2010, the same year that the governor rode the anti-federalist wave to defeat U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a Republican gubernatorial primary. Hutchison was very popular with Texas voters until the governor made her the proxy for an unpopular federal government. The same themes animated Perry’s botched run for president the next year.

We all remember the “oops” moment from the presidential debates. Perry’s run for president was in the ditch for weeks before that, partly because he backed an immigration idea that once made political sense in Texas but that proved unpopular in a national election.

After Mitt Romney said, in a debate in September 2011, that it makes no sense to give students illegally in the U.S. a discount on tuition, Perry responded by 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.”

His calls for federal help with border security in that same debate and at other times during that campaign were drowned out by his tuition position. The other candidates pounced, and Perry never seriously contended for the nomination after that.

His debating skills failed him, but his opposition to Washington, D.C., did not.

One difference between Rick Perry and Barack Obama is that one of them is sure he will never be on the ballot again.

Perry’s 14 years as governor will end in January, but he has not ruled out another run for president or a future stint in public service.

Obama is done with all that, but there are midterms ahead, and Perry's swipe at the president’s border policy illustrates and probably reinforces the president's unpopularity in Texas. And it comes on the eve of a fundraising trip that will take the president to Dallas and to Austin this week — but not to the border. On Monday, Obama invited Perry to meet him on the tarmac when he lands in Austin. Perry replied with an invitation to sit down and talk about the border while he's in Texas; he didn't get an immediate reply, but he did provide a fresh headline for the continuing story.

This latest border skirmish was brought on by a large increase in the number of unaccompanied child immigrants who are being housed in the U.S. while the authorities try to figure out what should happen next. The state is calling on the federal government to act. The federal government has been stuck in a finger-pointing squabble between the executive and legislative branches. And local governments are jumping in; Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said last month that 2,000 of the immigrants could be housed up there by the end of this month.

Perry has played good cop and bad cop, initially blasting the administration for letting the problem fester and become a crisis, and then saying he was not interested in credit and blame.

At a field hearing in Texas last week, the governor told federal officials that the U.S. should immediately deport the children who have arrived at the U.S. border without immigration documentation. And he repeated a longstanding request that the federal government reimburse the state for costs it has incurred securing its southern border.

“Allowing them to remain here will only encourage the next group of individuals to undertake this dangerous and life-threatening journey here,” Perry said, arguing that immediate deportation is the best path.

Perry avoided confrontation. “I'm tired of pointing fingers and blaming people,” he said there. “I hope what we can do is come up with some solutions here.”

In last weekend’s interview, he changed gears, saying Obama has known this problem was mounting and should have done something about it earlier.

“The president has sent powerful messages time after time — by his policies, by nuances — that it is okay to come to the United States and you can come across and you'll be accepted in open arms,” he said. “That is the real issue.”

He got some support from an old ally on the other side of the aisle. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, was Perry’s first secretary of state — a posting that includes minding the relationship between Texas and Mexico. He said over the weekend that the Obama administration’s efforts on the border have fallen short.

The Democratic congressman didn’t go as far as his former colleague in the Texas House, but he joined Republicans in Texas and in Congress who have been critical of the federal government.

“With all due respect to the administration, they are one step behind,” Cuellar told CNN. “They should have seen this coming a long time ago, because we saw those numbers increasing.

“There is an incentive that if you bring a child over here or you are a child by yourself, you are going to be let go,” Cuellar added. “Our immigration courts are so backlogged, there’s not enough detention spaces, and therefore, this is the incentive that we have to take away.”

Their criticism landed alongside reports that Obama will ask Congress for more power to deport the minors arriving in Texas.

On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was quoted in The Hill saying most of the children will be going back where they came from. “If those children do not have a legal basis for remaining in this country — and as I mentioned, it's unlikely that those children will be likely to qualify for humanitarian relief — they'll be sent home,” he said.

Earnest also said the courts are not keeping up with the cases and suggested that would be a part of the administration’s call for congressional help.

That’s not likely to end the debate before the president’s visit to Texas this week or to remove it from the list of issues under conversation in this year’s elections. From a political standpoint, that puts the governor right where he likes to be — at the front of a pack of angry voters, pointing his finger at Washington, D.C.

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Demographics Immigration Politics Barack Obama Henry Cuellar Rick Perry