How Sheriff Joe Arpaio helps (and hurts) Rick Perry on illegal immigration

The endorsement of anti-illegal immigration crusader Joe Arpaio is a big boost to the conservative credentials of Rick Perry. But 'Sheriff Joe' is not without his critics, even among Republicans. 

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry listens as he gets the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio Tuesday during a campaign stop at Joey's Diner in Amherst, N.H.

Why is Sheriff Joe Arpaio endorsing Rick Perry for president?

For those not familiar with the Arizona lawman, Sheriff Arpaio has built up a reputation as perhaps the nation's the fiercest anti-illegal immigration crusader, rounding up thousands of undocumented workers in Maricopa County for deportation. And Texas Governor Perry? He has said he supports tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. 

But on Tuesday, the Arizona sheriff and the Texas governor were buddying it up through New Hampshire, as Perry emphasized a newly tough stance on immigration.

Could the endorsement of the Sheriff Arpaio do anything for Perry's flagging campaign?

In New Hampshire, at least, it's unclear how Arpaio can help him. Current state polls show Perry at just under 3 percent there – well behind not only Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, but also Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman Jr., and Herman Cain. And immigration is hardly a hot-button topic for Granite State voters.

Beyond New England, the partnership could help Perry scramble back from statements that cast him as "soft" on illegal immigration in the minds of many Republican primary voters. But it doesn't come without baggage.

"The Obama administration has a 'catch-and-release' policy where nonviolent illegal aliens are released into the general public today," Perry told patrons at a New Hampshire diner Tuesday morning. "My policy will be to detain and to deport every illegal alien that we apprehend. That is how we stop that issue."

Perry took heat from many conservatives this fall, particularly for his support of a Texas law that would give in-state tuition benefits to the children of undocumented immigrants.

"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 in one September debate – remarks he later backed away from.

He has also said that the federal government should extend work visas to undocumented immigrants.

But in recent months, Perry has worked hard to burnish his tough-on-immigration credentials as a border-state governor who, he says, is on the front lines. And an endorsement from Arpaio – the highly divisive sheriff who has become a hero of the anti-illegal immigration crowd – was the ultimate coup. Mr. Cain and Michele Bachmann had reportedly also been actively seeking his endorsement.

“I like the governor, in fact I’ll say it right now, it’s a pleasure and an honor to endorse you for president," Arpaio told a New Hampshire crowd. "One reason I like him is because he’s been fighting this battle as the governor. He doesn’t just talk about it. He does something about it."

They will campaign together in New Hampshire this week. With only 4 percent of New Hampshire voters citing immigration as their top issue, however, the endorsement is not likely to help Perry much in the state.

And while it helps Perry move rightward on the issue, Arpaio is hardly uncontroversial – even among Republicans.

Which has a number of people questioning Perry's decision. "Memo to Perry (and Romney, for that matter): A hard-line, anti-immigrant position is not especially popular in New Hampshire, even among likely Republican primary voters," writes former New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen in a Tuesday column. Just a few months ago, he notes, 42 percent of likely Republican primary voters indicated in a survey that they supported a path to citizenship.

And in the Atlantic, Andrew Cohen wonders why anyone would want Arpaio's endorsement. "That the beleaguered Perry would think that Arpaio will help rescue his flailing campaign is just one of the many mind-bending absurdities of the 2012 race," Cohen writes, noting the litigations and reports of fiscal malfeasance that have dogged Arpaio's career.

The fact that reports were surfacing Tuesday of Arpaio being booed at his town hall appearances with Perry, then, is not particularly surprising.   

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