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Rick Perry's Immigration Journey Could Haunt Presidential Race

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Newscom / Olivier Douliery

A decade later in June 2011, Perry traveled to San Antonio to offer an address to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials at their annual convention. This time, however, immigrant rights activists were gathered outside the building to protest and he faced a frosty, even hostile, reception from the guests inside. Perry again emphasized his pride in the state's Hispanic population, but it was no use -- a failed attempt by the governor to crack down on "sanctuary cities" with legislation that would free police officers to question people on their immigration status had poisoned the atmosphere completely. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who spoke before the governor, condemned Perry's bill as "easily the most anti-Latino agenda in more than a generation."

As Texas' longest serving governor, Perry has had the unenviable job of balancing his states' Latino population, business community, and border hawks over one of the most tumultuous decades for immigration policy in recent memory. But while his careful triangulation has kept him in office through three elections and a bruising primary in 2010, it's also left a trail of resentment on all sides that could threaten his quest for the presidential nomination.

On the right, anti-immigration conservatives have swung the GOP towards a hardline position, undoing a years-long effort by Perry's predecessor, George Bush, to bring Latino voters into the Republican fold. Once relatively uncontroversial positions by Perry have since become anathema: a bill offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, which passed with near-unanimous margins in Texas, now faces major protests in Maryland.

"There's no justification for it," Mark Krikorian, executive director of the hawkish Center for Immigration Studies, told TPM when asked about the Texas law. "It sends one more signal that being an illegal alien really isn't that bad and that illegal immigrants can be integrated into the institutions of our society."

Many credit the Texas bill with inspiring the federal DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for similar children. Republican lawmakers have blocked the legislation in the Senate amid fierce opposition from conservative activists. Perry has come out against the national DREAM Act, but continues to defend his support for in-state tuition.

"To punish these young Texans for their parents' actions is not what America has always been about," he told the New Hampshire Union Leader last month.

NumbersUSA, which advocates for low levels of immigration, recently gave Perry a D- grade for his various policy stances. While the grade actually puts him in the middle of the pack among presidential contenders (only Michele Bachmann is in "B" territory), Perry's close association with the border guarantee that he'll receive plenty more attention. According to the group's president, Roy Beck, the biggest knock on Perry is his opposition to mandating the use of E-Verify, a federal electronic system for checking prospective workers' immigration status. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) pushed Perry on the issue hard in her 2010 primary campaign against the governor, pledging in a debate to use the system on all state employees.

"E-Verify would not make a hill of beans' difference when it comes to what's happening in America today," Perry fired back. "You secure the border first, then you can talk about how to identify individuals in an immigration situation."

According to Beck, Perry's quote was a major disappointment. "It's tough because for most of us who are concerned about illegal immigration, taking away the jobs magnet is the most important thing you can do," he said.

The issue hasn't died with his re-election, either: recently, a coalition of Tea Party groups called on Perry to implement E-Verify requirements via executive order.

Perry's potential problems with the right are the more immediate concern in the Republican primary, his recent efforts to shore up his conservative credentials with "sanctuary city" legislation could hobble him with Latino voters in a general election.

That fight began after Arizona passed a first-of-its-kind law requiring local law enforcement officers to question people about their immigration status if they believed they might be in the country illegally. At first, immigrant rights groups were heartened by Perry's reaction: an immediate pledge that he would not pursue a similar path in Texas. "I fully recognize and support a state's right and obligation to protect its citizens, but I have concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona and believe it would not be the right direction for Texas," he said in a statement.

But despite his stated concerns about the Arizona bill "taking [police] away from their existing law enforcement duties, which are critical to keeping citizens safe" and using them to enforce immigration laws, he later threw his weight behind passing a bill that critics said would do much the same thing. While not as strong as Arizona's approach, the Texas bill that Perry added to an emergency legislative session this year would take away municipalities' ability to prevent their officers from questioning suspects about their immigration status. Police chiefs and sheriffs in Texas' biggest cities, including Dallas, El Paso, Austin, and San Antonio, strongly opposed the measure, warning it would strain their resources and discourage illegal immigrants from coming forward with information on crimes. According to Perry's camp, officers need more flexibility to confront potentially dangerous illegal immigrants.

"At the beginning he was positioning himself in the middle of the road, or at least not necessarily alienating Hispanic voters," Adriana Cadena, an El Paso activist for the Border Network For Human Rights, told TPM. "He's definitely moved more towards the right in the last couple of years as he's been running for president."

In addition to the sanctuary bill, Perry signed a Voter ID law that Democrats had blocked for years out of concerns it would discourage poor and minority citizens from voting. While civil rights groups noted that documented instances of voter fraud were extremely rare, proponents of the bill argued that it was necessary to ensure illegal aliens didn't vote.

While border issues are sensitive territory, Perry has some upside as well. Like many national Republicans, he has taken to emphasizing security as a necessary prerequisite to passing comprehensive reform. Unlike other candidates, however, Perry can make the case that he's actually contributed towards tightening law enforcement's grip on the border. For example, he's directed state helicopters to bolster federal patrols -- an image that could play well in front of a national audience.

"The fact is there's no governor in the country who has worked as long as he has to secure our borders, who has worked with two administrations to get them to focus on what is literally a war going on along the US-Texas border," longtime Perry strategist Dave Carney told TPM. "It's all about securing our border. That's been very consistent policy."

Another of Perry's advantages may be that he hasn't staked out clear positions on some hot button federal immigration issues, giving him some flexibility to tailor his pitch to both sides. He toed a careful line during the 2006 immigration debates, supporting a guest worker program to legitimize illegal aliens, but never backing Bush's call for a path to citizenship, a provision conservatives derided as "amnesty."