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Perry's immigration policy is different than GOP rivals

By Rachel Streitfeld, CNN
  • Immigration issues separate Gov. Rick Perry from his rivals
  • He supports in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants
  • His stance drew boos from the conservative tea party debate crowd
  • Latinos make up almost 40 percent of the population in Texas

(CNN) -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry found himself standing apart from his GOP rivals on a pair of immigration issues during a CNN/Tea Party Debate in Tampa, Florida, Monday night.

Sounding more like a previous Texas governor who brought "compassionate conservatism" to the White House, Perry staunchly defended legislation he signed that aids the children of illegal immigrants even as the audience at the debate roundly disagreed.

The Texas governor was asked about a measure he approved in 2001 that grants in-state tuition rates and financial aid to the children of illegal immigrants.

"The bottom line is it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way," Perry said. "I'm proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, you go be on the government dole."

Several people in the audience of tea party activists booed Perry's support of that policy, which is anathema to hard-line conservatives. They argue it provides an incentive for immigrants to enter the country illegally. Perry said he did not favor amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"The American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, who used the opportunity to tout her conservative credentials. Perry has overshadowed her campaign since entering the race last month

Perry also made waves when he said the key to securing the border would be to deploy enough "boots on the ground," which he contended the federal government had failed to do.

Several of his opponents disagreed, arguing that the correct approach to tamp down illegal immigration would be to build a border fence between the United States and Mexico.

Perry has called the notion -- especially in rural areas -- "preposterous" and, at the debate, asserted his authority as the candidate with the most experience dealing with border security and immigration issues.

On both issues, the governor is out-of-step with much of the conservative wing of the Republican party. How much it may hurt him during the primary process is unclear.

As the governor of a state with a large Hispanic population, Perry's "reasonably moderate" approach to immigration policy is simple pragmatism, said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

"I don't think anyone's going to walk around and say Rick Perry's pro-immigrant, but he's been a moderate on the issue for strategic reasons," Henson said. "He's had to manage a different political environment than many of his opponents."

Latinos make up almost 40 percent of the population in Texas, and Perry carried 38 percent of their vote in his gubernatorial contest against Democrat Bill White in 2010.

In addition, business owners in the state benefit from a large immigrant labor force and cross-border commerce with Mexico, Henson said.

The in-state tuition measure was not the governor's only gesture toward Latinos.

Last year, Perry opposed Arizona's tough immigration law, SB 1070, which orders immigrants to carry registration documents at all times and requires police to question individuals who they suspect may be in the United States illegally.

But he also moved to appeal to conservatives on the contentious issue.

Earlier this year, the governor supported a bill to ban "sanctuary cities" in the state. The legislation would have punished cities that shielded criminal suspects from having to answer questions about their immigration status. Though it initially received enthusiastic Republican support, the bill did not pass.

As the GOP presidential primary race continues, some candidates may choose to focus their attacks on Perry's perceived softness on illegal immigration. Henson believes Perry is conservative enough on other key issues to weather attacks from his rivals on immigration.

"It's one of the areas where he doesn't fit into the conservative mold," Henson said. "[But] I'd be surprised if the dynamic of this race turned around immigration."