Rick Perry Is A Man To Watch On Immigration. Seriously.

April 4, 2013 9:46 a.m.

As immigration reform heats up, one of the big names outside of Washington to keep an eye on is Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX).

No, wait, don’t stop reading!

Perry’s national relevance is at a low point after running the most cringeworthy presidential campaign in recent memory. But he’s still the longtime governor of a large border state, he’s still weighing a presidential run, and he still has a visceral feel for the party’s conservative id. And even if he’s not the most influential guy shaping the immigration debate (or even the 100th most influential), Perry might be a decent bellwether of conservative support for reform.

So what does Perry’s take on immigration look like? So far, a bunch of red meat for the right about border security and amnesty and race — all while leaving the door open to actually supporting reform.

Perry’s CPAC appearance last month was a good example of how he walks the line between populist demagoguery and Latino outreach. In his speech, he sneered at the “popular media narrative” that the GOP has to change to accomodate the “growing Hispanic demographic,” drawing boos from the audience at the latter phrase. With that screaming dogwhistle to the nativist crowd out of the way, Perry pivoted to talking about how Republicans can win Hispanic voters just fine without “race based appeals,” instead focusing on opportunity and social conservatism. Actual policy positions taken on immigration? Zero.

Perry is deliberately hard to pin down on the mechanics of immigration policy. But what little he has said is not rhetorically incompatible with Marco Rubio wing of the GOP.

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On Wednesday, for example, he offered up another Texas two-step on the issue in an interview with Fox News. For the tea party crowd, he railed against “amnesty” and declared that “you cannot have a immigration policy until you first secure the border.”

But once he was asked whether he favored providing legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country today, his answer was a clear “yes.”

“We have to bring them out of the shadow of illegality by identifying them and what have you,” he said. “And I’m sure that there are wise people in Washington, D.C. that can come up with a way to do that and do it in a way that does not impact the ability for people who have been in line for a long time to become citizens of the United States to not be bumped.”

As for citizenship, Perry told Newsmax last month that he opposed a “special path” to naturalization for undocumented immigrants.

“The idea that we need to make special arrangement and move people who came here illegally to the front of the line is not appropriate,” he said.

His repeated use of “special” path and “front of the line” deserves some attention. Tea party conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) who have been supportive of reform make a big show of distinguishing between a “special path to citizenship,” which they oppose, and a bill that would let undocumented immigrants eventually become citizens by going to the “back of the line” in a revamped process that’s open to legal immigrants as well.

This is actually about as specific as Perry has gotten on immigration to this point. Mitt Romney eviscerated him in the debates by portraying him as an amnesty-loving lefty, but he’d mostly dodged the question of what do with undocumented immigrants his entire time as governor, typically turning the conversation to border security instead. That Perry, who’s normally so careful about staying on the party’s right flank, now feels comfortable conceding that illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in America reflects how far the GOP has moved to the center on the issue. If he ends up endorsing a final immigration bill in Congress, or releases his own plan (which he has pledged to do) that’s close, reform is almost certainly about to pass.

On the other hand, if things go sour he’s left enough room to run as a border hawk against those amnesty-loving D.C. elites who would sacrifice law and order just to appease that — boooo! — “growing Hispanic demographic.” It’s not hard to imagine this version of Perry — his CPAC speech is practically there already. And he might actually be the most likely 2016 name to take up the hardline space Romney occupied in 2012. Three of the biggest names tossed around — Rubio, Paul Ryan and Rand Paul — have already committed themselves to a relatively progressive vision of immigration reform.

Perry may be a long shot for the nomination, but should he decide to go that route the consequences for the party’s new Latino outreach program could be disastrous. For that reason alone, his journey on immigration deserves close attention.

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