As governor of the state with the longest border with Mexico, Rick Perry… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Immigration advocates in Texas were heartened last year when the Republican governor, Rick Perry, flatly stated that Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants "would not be the right direction for Texas."
But in June, Perry convened a special session of the Legislature, hoping to pass a measure outlawing sanctuary cities — places where police are not allowed to ask people they detain about immigration status.
The law, which had already failed during the Legislature's regular session, was defeated a second time thanks to an opposition coalition that included immigration activists as well as law enforcement officials, evangelical pastors and Republican business owners, among them one of Perry's biggest fundraisers.
Why did the governor push the ban in a state where no official sanctuary cities even exist? Many in Texas, including Perry supporters, thought they knew the answer: He was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I suspect it came from his advisors," said Houston insurance broker Norman Adams, a Republican and Perry supporter who fought hard against the bill, which he considered anti-business. "You know, 'You need to look tough on immigration, so we want a sanctuary bill.' "
As governor of the state with the longest common border with Mexico — 1,254 miles — Perry entered the presidential race in a unique position among the top tier of Republican presidential aspirants.
His state is home to nearly a fifth of the U.S. Latino population, and in his most recent reelection, he received 38% of the Latino vote. Like other ambitious Republicans in Western states with large Latino electorates, he has held more moderate or nuanced positions on illegal immigration than others in his party.
In 2001, Perry supported a Texas version of the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and has drawn strong opposition from many conservatives. Perry also has pressed for a guest-worker program and has said he supports a border fence, but only in high-population areas.
"There's a lot of gray with Perry," said Republican restaurateur Louis Barrios of San Antonio, who has raised money for Perry and believes the governor's views were informed by his hardscrabble West Texas upbringing. "He's a farmer. A poor farmer. He knows what immigrant labor has done for this country."
But his more recent moves have leaned to the right. In May, Perry signed a stringent voter ID law that required citizens to show one of five acceptable ID photographs before they may vote. (Opponents argued that the requirement would disenfranchise the poor and minorities who lack passports or driver's licenses.)
Perry's previous moderate stances have already caused him problems among Republican voters, particularly those who oppose compromise on illegal immigration.
But his more recent conservative positions carry a risk as well, imperiling his standing among Latinos, an important voting bloc in national battleground states such as New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. In June, Perry got a chilly response when he spoke at a conference of the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials in San Antonio. Outside the conference, a coalition of Latino and civil rights groups staged a protest against him.
Like all the 2012 candidates, Perry is already being pressed for details on how he would handle illegal immigration. Since he entered the race a little over a week ago, Perry has offered voters in New Hampshire and Iowa a stock response: that it's pointless to talk about immigration reform until the border is secure. That position, essentially pushing the difficult issues off to the future, has become a common response among many Republican candidates.
"He is avoiding the issue, definitely," said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, which played a leading role in defeating the sanctuary city ban. "There is no other way to talk about immigration than to talk about immigration reform. That is the No. 1 issue for Latinos, even more than the economy and housing, because it has to do with their families, no?"
At a stop Wednesday in Nashua, N.H., businessman George J. Katis pressed Perry. Would he move more military personnel to the border? What would he do with illegal immigrants already here?
"You need a policy," said Katis, owner of the Nashua Wallpaper & Paint Co. "You can't ship everybody back."
"We have to secure the border first," Perry said, adding that he would like Predator drones to be deployed along the border for surveillance. He disputed President Obama's recent assessment that the border was more secure than ever, but also disagreed with those who argue for more fencing: "The idea that you're going to build a wall from Brownsville to El Paso, it's just — it's ridiculous on its face," Perry said.