Should Republicans look to Texas for immigration inspiration?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's comments on immigration got him in trouble with tea party activists and other conservatives during the Republican presidential primaries. But the GOP may need the 'heart' he spoke of to attract Hispanic voters, who went overwhelmingly for President Obama.

Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle/AP
Hayley Arana, 2, stands with hundreds of people and her mother Cynthia Diaz in Houston. Ms. Diaz hopes to get a US passport. She also hopes the DREAM Act will be passed so she can become a U.S. citizen.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry made news last year for saying that those who opposed the education of immigrant kids didn't have a heart, it was widely seen as a gaffe that helped bring down his presidential campaign.

But three weeks after the 2012 election, the GOP-dominated House on Friday passed an immigration bill aimed at expanding visas for college graduates focused on science and technology – a proposal that could serve as the precursor of comprehensive immigration reform, complete with "heart" as it echoed appreciation of immigrant contribution.

The GOP's dramatic philosophical turnaround on immigration policy has been pilloried by critics on both the left and right as tokenism after Hispanics soundly broke for Obama.

Yet with Rick Perry's Texas likely to emerge as the state to challenge Obama's vision of a stronger federal government, the lessons from the state, particularly on immigration, are being taken more seriously after what many Republicans saw as a withering election defeat on Nov. 6.

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To be sure, the GOP is being pulled in a dozen different directions as it preps its backbench of state leaders to take a more definitive role in guiding the party back to electoral viability. For one, the GOP's Washington establishment wing and its conservative tea party wing are drawing vastly different forensic conclusions from the wreckage of the race, including how, or if, to polish its immigration rhetoric.

Mitt Romney's departure from the national stage, writes Steve Peoples of the Associated Press, has "left the GOP rudderless, lacking an overarching agenda, and mired in infighting, with competing visions for the way ahead …"

Yet particularly on immigration reform, Texas has emerged as one potent example of how Republican ideologies can not only coexist, but thrive in a diverse population, including huge numbers of legal and illegal Hispanics.

One major example: Mr. Perry won reelection in 2010 in part by winning 38 percent of the Hispanic vote, at a time when Perry – who in most ways is more conservative than Romney – had thrown his lot in with the tea party.

The Texas example shows that "it's possible to conceive of a Republican party that includes conservatives but doesn't pander to nativists," writes Texas Monthly's Erica Grieger, the author of the upcoming book "Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What America can learn from the strange genius of Texas."

"Republicans don't need to win the Hispanic vote to win an election, even in a majority-minority state like Texas,” she writes. “They just need to stop losing it so aggressively."

Of course it's easy for Texas Republicans to ballyhoo their inroads with the Hispanic voting demographic. After all, the state was carved out of Mexico, and Anglo and Hispanic cultures are culturally, economically and socially intertwined, much more so than in states that have seen more recent migrations of undocumented immigrants like Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

But in modern times, politicians like former Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Mr. Perry have supported pro-immigration legislation, including, in Perry's case, a DREAM Act that helped illegal immigrant kids go to college. Texas Republicans have also been careful to use inclusive language, as in the case of Bush, spoken in Spanish.

Texas is already providing some answers to the GOP leadership vacuum, as well. Tea party favorite Ted Cruz, a small government conservative, former editor of the Harvard Law Review and now US Senator-elect, gave a speech this week that hinted at a potential presidential run in 2016. Other emerging conservatives have strong immigrant roots, including, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

"As a senator from Texas, the largest and most important state in the Republican firmament, Cruz has a special role in the post-Romney debate," the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza wrote recently.

In his speech Thursday night, Mr. Cruz, who was born in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother, described what he called "opportunity conservatism." He talked about how the American ideal of personal transformation was betrayed by Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remark, which he said underscored a misguided idea that there's a "fixed and static pie" where "the rich are rich and the poor are poor."

"The essence of the conservative message should be we want a dynamic nation where anybody with nothing can achieve anything," Cruz said.

An immigrant's dream, writ into conservative philosophy, observed from the border frontier of Texas – it's now up to Republicans nationally to decide whether Mr. Cruz's vision is one they can support.

QUIZ: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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