Rick Perry's kinder, gentler view on illegal immigrants: Will it cost him?

Gov. Rick Perry's Texas was the first state to let illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges. He defended that decision during Monday's presidential debate, amid loud boos.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry gestures during a Republican presidential debate Monday, in Tampa, Fla. Perry's softened stance on illegal immigrants earned him boos during the debates. Will it hurt his campaign?
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Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s support of in-state college tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants is raising eyebrows among tea party Republicans and is giving his challengers for the GOP presidential nomination fresh ammunition to attack him.

At a presidential debate Monday night, a tea-party infused audience booed Governor Perry when he defended his state's practice, and fellow candidates –particularly Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Mitt Romney – criticized him for signing legislation in 2001 that made Texas the first state to let undocumented residents who graduate from Texas high schools pay the same college tuition rates as legal residents. Since then, 12 other states have enacted similar laws.

“The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws and are here in the United States illegally,” Ms. Bachmann said Monday night during a debate sponsored by CNN and Tea Party Express.

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Defending his decision, Perry said the law sends “a message to young people that, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you. We are going to allow you to be a contributing members of the state of Texas and not be a drain on the system.”

Perry’s stance toward immigrants is similar to that of George W. Bush, another Texas governor and presidential aspirant who likewise was attacked for his moderate solutions to immigration reform, such as guest worker programs. Mr. Bush endured the attacks and won the presidency, but Perry, who polls show is the current front-runner, may face a more difficult time.

“What changed [since then] is [that] the base of the Republican Party is much more concerned about unauthorized immigration,” says Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine. “Where Bush was able to distinguish himself as a new type of Republican, a ‘compassionate conservative,’ it’s not going to be so easy for Governor Perry this year.”

Perry finds himself in the unusual situation of sharing common ground with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who is poised to sign a bill that expands his state’s tuition law for illegal immigrant students by allowing them to apply for publicly funded financial aid. The California Assembly voted Friday to send the governor the bill, a companion to a bill Brown signed in July that allows illegal immigrant students access to privately funded college aid.

California's financial aid incentives for students in the US illegally are the most generous in the US. In states that allow such students to pay the same tuition rates as legal state residents, they must prove they have lived in the state at least three years, received their high school diploma or G.E.D. in the state, and sign an affidavit promising to seek legal status.

Texas and California were the first states to offer in-state tuition rates to such students. During the past decade, 11 states followed their lead: Utah, New York, Washington, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Connecticut. In 2008, however, Oklahoma revoked its law, which had been on the books for five years.

Advocates of the legislation say that by offering in-state tuition rates to children who bear no responsibility for the fact that their parents entered the US illegally, states are making higher education more available to young people who cannot afford the higher out-of-state price tags at public colleges. Critics say the allowance is a burden to taxpayers and unfairly takes resources from potential students who are legal residents.

“These states are recognizing that these are the best of the best – kids who have overcome illegal status and have graduated high school and have gotten into competitive state universities. The states want to hold onto these kids and not have them lost into the underground economy,” Mr. DeSipio says.

But the trend of states granting such tuition benefits to such undocumented students may have peaked, adds DeSipio, especially now that Republican majorities won many statehouses in the 2010 elections and made immigration reform a legislative priority.

Since its passage in 2001, the Texas legislation has applied to 12,138 students, or 1 percent of all Texas college students, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reported in 2010.

Though many in the tea party movement no doubt object to Perry's stance on this issue, moderate Republicans may be more inclined to support it, says Leo Chavez, director of the Chicano/Latino Studies Program at UC Irvine. More important, Perry's position will play well with Hispanics, whose population grew 43 percent from 2000 through 2010.

“To make [Perry] out as the devil [over immigration] doesn’t play well nationally for Latinos,” says Mr. Chavez. The other candidates “aren’t looking past the primary, obviously, because they want to win [the nomination].”

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