One needed to be deaf not to notice how strongly to the right all but two candidates were on the immigration Thursday.  Of the two candidates staking out left to center positions only one was meaningful, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s.  Perry came under fire from almost all angels on the issue during the debate.  He sparred with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum over the border and did the same with Romney.  It was perhaps this issue that most hurt Perry during the debate.  Of all Perry’s attributes, few, if any, would characterize the Texan Governor as moderate or centrist.  But in the current crop of GOP candidates on immigration he likely is.  And if he is not the nominee that bodes badly for the party among Hispanics in 2012.

But the larger issue for the GOP in 2012 is how the party’s standardbearers are positioning themselves on illegal immigration.  Republican candidates, from Gingrich to Santorum to Romney to Bachmann are all piling on Perry for his handling of the issue as Governor of Texas.  But in turn they are providing fodder for Democrats to hit them on with Hispanics if they are the GOP candidate for president.   And it is easy to see why.

The Republican position on illegal immigration has always been to secure the border.  But never have I seen such criticism of how a Southwestern state GOP Governor has handled the issue.  If you watched the GOP debate Thursday you would have thought anybody who considered integration of Hispanics or took steps to try was a Democrat or worse, for “open borders.”  And one would think the party that is pro-state’s rights would be defending a Governor’s action to deal with the issue in a unique way.  Guess not.

Rick Perry’s solution to illegal immigration is unique, and why not?  Afterall, unlike New Mexico or Arizona, Texas has a massive barrier as a border to Mexico.  It is called the Rio Grande river.  And it has to color how the Governor thinks about the issue.  Putting up a fence along that kind of border would be  hard, if not impossible.  Maintaining that fence would also be unbelieveably costly.  And more than that, if the Federal Government said no and Texas tried anyways they would likely be sued to stop. 

It is noticable how no other GOP candidate other than former NM Governor Gary Johnson nobody else has had to deal with the issue directly.  Instead, the other candidates have the luxury of throwing out read meat to conservatives across the country.  Johnson in his time as Governor of New Mexico dealt with the issue much as Perry did.  He offered incentives for them to get educate, using the market, and trying to integrate them into the state’s society (considering NM is the first majority-Hispanic US state that was quite a feat to try to take on).

In much the same way Perry tried to do the same. With an overreaching federal government dictating how states could deal with the issue Perry’s plan has taken dual approaches.  He would support states such as Arizona and Georgia in their attempts to crack down on illegal immigration and earlier allowing illegals to apply for in-state tuition (keeping in mind they still pay to go to schools).  This is also not mentioning that in several ways Perry and the GOP legislature have strengthened the hand of law enforcement in TX in dealing with the issue.  And no lawsuits have come out against them either.

In 2008 only 1% of all Texan higher-ed students who were illegals were getting either in-state tuition or financial aid.  But the overall Hispanic growth in the state has climbed, and many legal residents in the state who are Hispanic are getting financial aid from schools.  This has caused a major uproar and it has only expected to get worse as the Texas A&M student senate voted to end in-state tution for illegals. Anger from conservatives on the issue is understandable but what is the alternitive?  Deny legal Hispanics the right to scholarships or higher-ed out of anger against illegals? Conservatives would also be wise to consider the whole idea of in-state/out-state tuition costs are outdates subsidies that only hinder education in the modern United States upper-ed system.

But this goes far deeper than just dissecting Perry’s record or debating subsidies.  As the other candidates have attacked Perry they have shown themselves to be further and further to the right on the issue.  How would you react if you were a Hispanic to this line of attack?  To you Perry’s plan may make sense, considering the context, and yet GOP candidates are butchering him over it.  When no mention of a fence is made, automatically the GOP faithful assume he is weak on the issue.  Nevermind that Perry has advocated for far more boots, both Border Patrol and active military, to be on the border.  The GOP presidential candidate needs Hispanic voters votes to win in Western states in 2012.  Without them Barack Obama looks good for 2012, despite his low poll numbers.

In a nutshell this represents why the GOP is struggling to win Hispanic voters.  Not because the party is to far to the left on the issue but because ideology is blinding the party and its candidates from making smart, pragmatic policy moves to deal with the issue.  As I mentioned earlier none of the GOP candidates other than Perry and Johnson have any experience with the issue.  In fact, the rest all come from solidly white/black states.  Somehow I doubt Minnesota, Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania have a booming Hispanic population in comparison to the Southwest.

What Perry did in Texas to try and educate Hispanics in Texas was a calculated gamble.  Whether it pays off or not in the long-term remains to be seen.  For it to surely immigration has to be taken up on the federal level.  There are simply to many pieces in this debate to just label a decison made at the state level left or right.  Context should matter as well.  US immigration policy is decades out of date for both legal and illegal immigrants and until that along with border security is dealt with this issue will remain a problem for the nation.  If you had watched the debate Thursday night you would have thought putting a fence on the border would fix the problem right there.  If only it would.  Hispanics know it won’t. Until a coherent GOP policy on immigration, more than border security, comes out the party is doomed to continue to struggle with this growing voter bloc.

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