Now that he’s called his comments on immigration reform last week "inappropriate," Rick Perry has officially joined the hard right of the Republican party.
Perry was unofficially there already. At the latest GOP primary debate, the Texas governor defended his 2001 decision to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, saying, "If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society."
That statement reveals what is a standard conservative position, and one that his camp initially said he’d stick to. After coming under fire from fellow GOP candidate Mitt Romney and Tea Party activists, this week Perry walked back the statement, saying, "I probably chose a poor word to explain that for people who don’t want their state to be giving tuition to illegal aliens, illegal immigrants in this country — that’s their call and I respect that. I was probably a bit over-passionate by using that word and it was inappropriate."
Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, an immigration reform organization that favors a pathway to citizenship, says fear is why any dissent on immigration policy is taboo in today’s Republican party.
"There’s a legitimate fear that activists could end your political career," he says, referring to the small, but highly motivated, group of Tea Party activists who threaten politicians at primary time.
"What a remarkable lurch to the right that we’ve witnessed in the last decade," Sharry says, pointing out that in 2001 when Perry signed the Texas DREAM Act into law, Democrats feared losing Latino voters. Now, immigration—a critical issue for many Latino voters—is practically radioactive in the GOP, thanks to the work of far right activists.
Even Orrin Hatch, who introduced the federal DREAM Act that would give undocumented students a pathway to citizenship, refused to vote for his bill this year. Sharry says Hatch is "terrified" he’ll be primaried out of his seat by a Tea Partier.
Shortly after Perry’s initial "heartless" comment, Romney won cheers as he told a conservative audience: "I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain."
With 2012 looming, there’s the obvious question of what conservative hardlining will mean for President Obama’s candidacy. Sharry says that Republicans have been shedding Latino voters since 2006, and will continue to do so–but those voters are also "dispirited" and won’t necessarily turn out for Obama at the historic levels they did in 2008.
"If there is a choice between Romney or Perry and Obama, it’s not going to be hard for the community to tell who’s on their side," Sharry says. "But the mobilizing is going to be difficult."