Perry's support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants draws fire

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 13, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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Add immigration to the growing list of issues dividing Republican front-runner Rick Perry from his GOP rivals.

As governor of a state that has a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, Perry says that none of his Republican rivals come close to matching his years-long commitment to border security.

But former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other GOP contenders, sensing a potential weakness on a big issue to many Republican voters, are hammering Perry for supporting a law permitting in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

The first-in-the-nation law was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2001 with Perry's support. Perry says the bill has enabled thousands of additional students to get a college education, but some of his Republican opponents have condemned the law, saying it rewards illegal behavior.

Romney vetoed in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in 2004, prompting his campaign to portray Romney as being tougher than Perry on illegal immigration.

"There's a stark contrast between Gov. Romney and Gov. Perry," Romney's spokesman Ryan Williams said. "Gov. Perry has a very liberal record on immigration."

At Monday's Tea Party Express-sponsored Republican debate in Florida, two other candidates, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also sniped at Perry over his support of in-state tuition.

"I'm proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society," Perry said of the law's beneficiaries. He said: "The bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your name is. That is the American way."

But Bachman countered that "the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally."

Perry, who has been governor for nearly 11 years, defends his record on immigration and says he has more expertise in border enforcement than any other candidate.

Since 2005, Perry has directed more than $400 million into a multiagency law enforcement operation along the border. He has also signed legislation prohibiting illegal immigrants from receiving drivers' licenses, backed a new voter identification law and pushed an unsuccessful "sanctuary city" bill that would have allowed local law officers to ask about immigration status.

"The heart of the problem is Washington's failure to secure the border, and as President, Rick Perry will make sure that the federal government fulfills its constitutional duty to secure our sovereign border," Perry's campaign said in a release titled "Setting the Record Straight" on Perry's border security and in-state tuition record.

The release said Perry "opposes amnesty" and believes that the federal government must "first secure the border before we can have any rational discussion about immigration reform."

Romney has also opposed efforts to allow drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants and supported Arizona's controversial 2010 law that made it mandatory for officers to ask about immigrant status. Perry said the Arizona law would "not be the right direction for Texas" although the sanctuary city bill, which died in the Legislature this year, would have given local officers the option to ask detainees about their legal status.

Some Tea Party activists have expressed concerns that Perry's support of in-state tuition suggests that he may be soft on illegal immigration. Jerry DeLemus of Rochester, N.H., chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty Political Action Committee, a Tea Party umbrella group, called the law "wrong-headed" and said Perry's backing of the measure is a "big negative" in his bid for the nomination.

"I think it hurts him quite a bit," said DeLemus, who hasn't aligned with any candidate.

But Angela Cox of Burleson, president and founder of the Johnson County Tea Party, said she is in "full support" of Perry's position on the bill. "If they're being productive and working for their citizenship, they're not on the government dole," she said.

Former Democratic state Rep. Rick Noriega of Houston, who sponsored the 2001 law, said the measure had near-unanimous support in both chambers of the Legislature and grew out of a study that showed high tuition was a major barrier to getting a college education.

"The intent of the law was to have more kids go to college," said Noriega, who is now president and CEO of Avance, a nonprofit organization that promotes educational advancement in at-risk Hispanic communities. "It's been incredibly successful."

Perry, he said, "recognized that it was good public policy, and it has been."

The law, which has since been emulated in other states, makes in-state tuition available for children of illegal immigrants who have lived in the state for three years, graduated from a Texas high school and sign an affidavit that they will get on track to get legal residency and U.S. citizenship.

A total of 16,476 illegal immigrants received the reduced tuition in the 2010 fiscal year, about 1 percent of the students at public universities and community colleges, said Dominic Chavez, spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. In-state tuition averages about $7,100 per student, compared with about $17,000 for students from out of state, Chavez said.

Carla Resendiz, 25, who was born in Mexico and came into the United States when she was 12, said the tuition discount enabled her to get a pharmacy degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She said her parents came to the United States in 1998, but their visa expired. She said she is now working on getting legal status.

"If I hadn't had this in-state tuition, I would still be 25 but I wouldn't have a degree," she said. "Now I'll be able to go into a profession where I can serve the community."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

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