At Thursday night’s Fox News/Google debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry stood firm on his decision to allow in-state tuition for undocumented students at state universities, despite harsh criticism from his rivals.
At this point, all of Perry’s opponents have recognized that he’s vulnerable to attacks from the right on immigration, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) took a swipe at Perry immediately when the topic of immigration was brought up. Bachmann said she would build a border fence on “every mile, every inch” of the southern border, and said “illegal aliens” shouldn’t get any government assistance. Both were veiled swipes at Perry, who has also dismissed the idea of a border fence as unworkable.
When it came time to respond however, Perry defended his decision, saying, “we need to be educating these children because [otherwise] they will be a drag on our society,” adding that if you don’t sympathize with the plight of undocumented immigrants brought here as children, “you don’t have a heart.”
Perry’s answer got a decidedly mixed response from the audience, some of whom clapped, some of whom booed loudly. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum took the bait, accusing Perry of being “soft” on illegal immigration, and saying it was wrong to give undocumented immigrant students “preferential treatment.” Mitt Romney seconded Bachmann on the border fence, and said it was wrong for Perry to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrant students. This is the one issue where Romney is on Perry’s right—he vetoed a similar proposal as governor of Massachusetts.
The problem for Perry is that despite his stated opposition to the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, the moral arguments he uses to defend his actions in Texas double as justifications for policies he says he opposes. And the GOP primary audience knows it.