The Perry Problem

Last week was a tough week for Texas Governor Rick Perry, who had surged to the front of the GOP presidential line when he announced his bid on August 13. His Orlando debate performance was panned by critics, making it the third straight debate where Perry underwhelmed on a national stage. In that Orlando debate’s aftermath, Perry’s “all-in” strategy at the Presidency 5 straw poll failed. Observers were stunned when Herman Cain, heretofore considered a second-tier candidate, instead walked off with the Florida prize, beating Perry by a better than 2 to 1 margin.


But there was another damning piece on Perry last week which has mostly escaped notice. While it’s beyond question that Rick Perry’s immigration stance wouldn’t win him any friends at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group which favors stricter limits on who and how many are allowed into the country, the numbers they ran state a case that most of the thousands of jobs created in Texas in spite of  the national recession are going to the immigrant population (legal and illegal) rather than native-born Americans.

The CIS study had a relatively simple methodology: compare the commonly available employment numbers in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey at two points in time (2007 and 2011)  based on whether respondents are working and whether they are newly arrived in the country or not. It’s also interesting to note the CIS survey only asked about immigrants arriving in 2007 or later, a time period where the much-criticized Texas policy of in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants had been in place for several years.

Their probe found that while the unemployment rate in Texas for native workers had doubled from 4.0% to 8.1% over the four-year study period, the total number of immigrants working in the state had jumped by nearly 7 percent. They concluded that over 80 percent of the new jobs taken in Texas had gone to newly-arrived immigrant workers, whether legal or illegal. Using accepted methodology, they presumed about 40% of the new jobs had been taken by illegal immigrants.


One can argue with the process the CIS used to arrive at their conclusions, and I had a hard time working through their fuzzy math, too. Yet the same figures the CIS used yield interesting results for other states in the region. In Oklahoma, where the unemployment rate among native-born workers only increased from 4.7 percent to 5.5 percent, the number of immigrants working jumped by almost 26 percent – yet the state adopted a get-tough policy on illegal immigration in late 2007, shortly after the study’s time period began.

In Nevada, though, immigrants increased their workforce numbers by just over 1 percent while native-born unemployment nearly tripled from 4.2 percent to 11.9 percent.

The figures in Arizona showed a different story, as their crackdown on illegal immigrants may have played a role in reducing the immigrant working population by about 6 percent. However, it’s more likely the overall economic climate in Arizona played the biggest part, as the unemployment rate among native workers surged threefold from 3% to nearly one in ten, so there are fewer jobs for everyone in that state, regardless of status.

In short, your mileage may vary.

Obviously Perry backers would discount the source of the report as a notoriously nativist organization which would like to seal up the borders and not allow anyone to come to our shores. While there’s always the old saw about lies, damned lies, and statistics in this particular line of discussion, the Center for Immigration Studies turned the raw numbers they researched into a question worth asking: who is benefiting from the federal government’s lax border security?


In his decision to adopt the Texas in-state tuition policy back in 2001, Rick Perry weighed the costs of doing nothing and perhaps dooming these children to menial employment or crime against rewarding the illegality of the parents who crossed the border without the proper paperwork. But one provision of the law which mandates that students taking advantage of in-state tuition must eventually apply for citizenship isn’t being followed up — so beneficiaries may yet be illegal immigrants.

The fallback position for Perry in this controversy continues to be that the in-state tuition issue was something thrust upon him by a federal government unwilling to do its job. Should he win, though, Rick Perry won’t be at the mercy of the federal government in Texas anymore; instead, he’ll be the one in charge of border security. And while he rightfully notes building a fence along the entire border may well be impractical, our border states are staring at a powderkeg just across  an artificial line of demarcation which hasn’t deterred crossing or criminal activity by those who can profit. The ethnicity of the criminal doesn’t really matter to the victim; they’ve still been harmed.

The question isn’t whether Rick Perry is the right choice for those concerned about border security, because he’s already dismissed the idea of completely walling off the Mexican border. Instead, one needs to wonder whether he’ll continue the open-border policies of his predecessors and allow the labor market to continue rewarding those who come across illegally at the expense of those legal residents who would be happy to perform some of these jobs. The Texas record shows he just might.



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