Posted by: Joshua Green on September 29, 2011
Last month, Texas Governor Rick Perry shot to the front of the pack when he joined the Republican presidential field. But his disastrous performance in last week’s debate may well propel him toward the rear — and could eventually drive him out of the race, if he can’t find a way to recover from it.
Perry was challenged about signing a 2001 law that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates if they’ve lived in Texas for three years and plan to become permanent residents. That’s a serious provocation to a Republican primary electorate that has grown steadily more nativist and less welcoming of minorities.
But Perry went beyond just defending the law to accuse his critics of lacking “heart.” This is where he really got himself into trouble. Invoking compassion or social justice before conservative audiences that think nothing of booing a gay soldier in Iraq or cheering the prospect of the uninsured being left to die — two grim highlights of recent Republican debates — is bound to cut into one’s support. Even someone so swaggeringly conservative in most other regards as Perry.
He would have done better to present a different rationale for the law, namely that it helps the state economy. His campaign is, after all, premised on the idea that he is better qualified than any of his opponents to create jobs and grow the economy.
Texas is home to more than 1 million illegal immigrants, most stuck in low-paying jobs. Meanwhile, the state suffers from a lack of skilled workers, producing only about half of what it needs (and luring the rest from elsewhere). The Texas Workforce Commission estimates that 133,000 jobs are currently unfilled, many because employers cannot find qualified applicants. Perry’s law helps to address this problem.
“We believe in it, we defend it, and we’re very disappointed with the attacks,” says Bill Hammond, the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business. “In the future, two-thirds of the workforce will require post-secondary education. We need to do everything we can in Texas. One premise of the law is that [these students] have gotten into college, which means they’re good prospects to get a degree. When they do, we want them to stay here.”
Producing college graduates and keeping them in Texas benefits more than just the business community. Because they earn more money, college graduates also provide the state with more revenue — no small matter in light of the $27-billion budget shortfall that Texas faced this past spring. The median hourly wage of a Texas worker with a bachelor’s degree or higher ($23.40) is almost double that of a worker with only a high school diploma ($12.29) and nearly triple that of someone who didn’t finish high school ($9.86), according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a Texas think tank.
Perhaps the best reason to support the law that Perry signed — though it probably won’t win over many of his critics — is that to do otherwise would be a tremendous waste of taxpayer money and human potential.
By law, Texas must educate the children of illegal immigrants. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate each student from kindergarten through high school. To then intentionally undermine the most promising of these students — and because of their immigration status, to which the law has until this point been deliberately blind — is foolish.
This is a big reason why Perry’s law passed so easily back in 2001, with bipartisan support. Only four legislators voted against it. At that time, Texas was the first state to grant these tuition rates to undocumented immigrants, and seemed to be pointing the way forward for the Republican Party.
Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had just been elected president with strong Hispanic support. And for years afterward, Republican with national ambitions like Sen. John McCain felt comfortable pushing for similar legislation at the federal level.
It’s Perry’s misfortune that this is no longer true, which makes his defense of the law all the more admirable. But he’d probably be around longer to defend it if he recognized his party’s hostility to illegal immigrants, and emphasized the broader merits of his approach.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.