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On Immigration, Perry Should Take the Offensive

The Texas governor has nothing to apologize for.

by
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Bio

September 22, 2011 - 12:00 am

Texas Gov. Rick Perry obviously needs some coaching on how to talk about illegal immigration — especially during the remaining Republican presidential debates.

Oh, Perry is doing fine. But he can do better if he stops being so polite and fires back at his opponents with both barrels. He needs to get off the defensive, and get on the offensive.

It’s not like he can avoid the topic. You can bet that it will keep coming up. In fact, it’s likely to make an appearance in the debate in Orlando, FL, which is sponsored by Fox News, Google, and the Florida Republican Party.

There are three reasons why this topic won’t go away for Republicans: GOP voters care about it; Perry’s Republican opponents see it as the Achilles’ heel for the GOP frontrunner; and the liberal media enjoys the sight of Republicans fighting with one another, especially over an issue that makes many of them seem dishonest, extreme, and out of touch.

For now, Republicans are livid over how Perry answered questions in the most recent CNN/Tea Party debate.

They hate that he didn’t apologize, grovel, and beg forgiveness for signing, in 2001, a fairness bill that allows illegal immigrants who attend state colleges and universities in the Lone Star State, and who are in the process of getting citizenship, to pay in-state tuition like any other state resident.

They hate that Perry, rather than give into bullying from the right wing, defends the concept to this day as having worked for Texas and benefited its economy by creating productive residents and not simply creating an underclass of uneducated individuals who can’t contribute to the economy.

But what they really hate are the words that Perry chose to defend what he did.

“The bottom line,” Perry said, “is it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is.”

Conservatives got the message. They knew exactly what Perry was trying to get across — that, often, especially in a border state like Texas, the immigration debate gets wrapped up in race and racism, ethnicity and ethnocentrism. The issue isn’t that people are coming illegally, as much as who is coming.

Nonsense, said Newt Gingrich, another Republican who is vying for the party’s nomination.

“It’s not about somebody’s last name,” Gingrich said during an appearance on CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer. “That’s baloney. That particular line I thought was slightly goofy. The question is whether you are legal or not legal.”

So, if Republicans don’t like what Perry is saying, I’d say he needs a new script. The next time the issue of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants comes up, he ought to say this:

Look, I don’t need lectures from the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum on how to handle the immigration issue. As someone who has lived on the U.S.-Mexico border his whole life, and been governor of the state of Texas for ten years, I know more about immigration than you four put together. Maybe things are different where y’all are from — Massachusetts, Washington, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. But, in Texas, we deal with this issue everyday. This is a complicated problem with a lot of moving parts, and yet you insult this audience and every American watching at home by proposing nothing more than simple solutions that aren’t honest and won’t work in the real world.

As long as college graduates earn much more than those with only a high school diploma, then it just makes sense for Texas to let driven and hard-working students go to college so they can graduate, get good jobs, pay taxes, and contribute to society. For the sake of a sound bite and some red meat for the crowd, you would leave these kids in a permanent underclass and pretend that they and their parents are simply invisible. That’s not what our party is about. It’s about expanding opportunity and allowing every individual to determine their own destiny through their own hard work and sacrifice.

Besides, standing here, what would you have me do? Turn myself inside out? Change my mind? Tell you and the audience what they want to hear, whether I mean it or not? No, thank you. I think voters have had enough of that kind of phoniness. Don’t you agree, Mitt? The reason people have responded so positively to my campaign is because they know that I say what I mean, and I mean what I say. And I say this: I’m proud of what we did in Texas with regard to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who go to college, and I’d do it again. If you don’t like that, you’re free to vote for someone else. But if you vote for me, you’re going to get courage and common sense — and my approach to this issue has some of both.

Now, that would make for great television. And even better politics.

Perry might lose the folks in the room, but he’d win the respect and support of millions of people around the country.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer, and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
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