Can Rick Perry Bridge the GOP’s Immigration Divide?

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry might, at first glance, seem a less-than-likely candidate to help solve Republican’s Latino outreach problem.  On the issue of immigration, for example, he has often used tough rhetoric, emphasizing the need for a secure border and touting his record as governor of enhancing border security measures.  This message certainly came through during his announcement speech yesterday:

When there was a crisis at our border last year and the president refused my invitation to see the challenge that we faced, I told him, “Mr. President, if you won’t secure the border, Texas will.”

Because of the threat posed by drug cartels and trans-national gangs, I deployed the Texas National Guard.

The policy worked. Apprehensions declined by 74 percent. If you elect me your president, I will secure this border.

However, a closer look at Perry’s immigration record reveals a candidate who has been far from anti-immigrant.  In fact, his stance on the issue has consistently resisted attempts at caricature, as discovered by columnist Kirsten O’Regan writing at Bustle, who found his immigration approach to be “a surprisingly nuanced affair: on the one hand championing certain rights for undocumented immigrants, and on the other advocating strong border security”:

The former governor, whose tenure stretched across just over 14 years, from December 2000 to January 2015, has touted his hardline record on border control as a great success. The candidate’s website details that in the last five year of his governorship, the state of Texas appropriated almost $800 million for border security operations, “to fill in the gaps left by the federal government.” He has argued that border security is a federal obligation, and that immigration reform will not work until the border has been effectively contained.

Yet despite his emphasis on tightened border control, the issue of immigration helped to stall Perry’s last bid for president, due to his support for a 2001 Texas law that granted in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrant students at state universities. When he came under attack from Republican rivals, his defense of the stance was heated. “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, during a primary debate.

[…]

Perry’s stance on illegal immigrants has consistently been somewhat centrist. In 2010, he criticized Arizona’s draconian new immigration enforcement law (which, among other things, made it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally) and said it wouldn’t be the correct approach for Texas.

To argue that Perry’s immigration stance was primarily or even largely responsible for his disappointing showing four years ago is, I think, presumptuous, though it may have cost him some support among certain elements of the Republican base.  Nevertheless, as O’Regan also points out, Perry’s actions also arguably won him significant support from Texas Latinos, 40 percent of whom voted for him in 2010.

Although Perry has been relatively quiet on what particular policies he would support as president (besides his aforementioned emphasis on border control and his past assertions that it would be unrealistic to expect the deportation of every undocumented immigrant in the country), his record as governor suggests a potential ability to bridge an important gap within the GOP: appealing to conservatives fed up with America’s broken immigration system while also engaging with Latinos typically turned off by past Republican restrictionist rhetoric.  Given the increasing importance Latino voters play in determining the next president, Perry’s 2016 campaign certainly bears close watching.

Paul Dupont is a legislative assistant for American Principles in Action.