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The Daily Need

Rick Perry’s immigration ‘Achilles heel’

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the 28th annual National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, Thursday, June 23, 2011, in San Antonio. He received a tepid reception after Democratic Hispanic leaders denounced some of Perry's most prized policies as openly hostile to Hispanics. Photo: AP Photo/Darren Abate

Rick Perry is leading the pack in the quest for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race – but his record on immigration, largely considered the Texas governor’s “Achilles heel” among the conservative base, will be a prime target for scrutiny as the race pushes forward.

Despite Perry being one of the most conservative candidates in the field of Republican contenders, his stance on immigration has been notably divergent from the conservative orthodoxy. At Mother Jones, Josh Harkinson sums up the ways that Perry has balanced the immigration issue in a state with booming numbers of both Latino-Americans and Tea Party members:

Texas is not a national outlier on immigration policies so much as a brutal testing ground. Here, exit polls in 2010 showed a higher tea party affiliation than anywhere in the country, and yet the low-wage economy—the bedrock of the so-called ‘Texas Miracle’ — depends on a steady influx of workers from south of the border. Perry’s approach has been a shrewd blend of satisfying the tea party base by trumpeting the need to secure the border (which is a federal responsibility, not to mention pretty much impossible) while protecting his corporate donors from liability stemming from hiring undocumented workers.

In terms of policy, Perry’s relatively moderate record on immigration is an easy one for staunch conservatives to criticize. The governor has called the notion of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico “ridiculous,” and he supported the Texas state DREAM Act – a law granting qualified undocumented students in-state tuition for college – in 2001, long before similar state laws were enacted in more than a dozen states across the U.S. Perry also opposed a mandate that would require employers to use a federal system called e-Verify to check the immigration status of all prospective employees, and has supported a guest worker program in the state. Additionally, after the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, largely considered one of the strictest immigration laws in the country, Perry declared then that he would not seek to pass similar legislation in Texas despite a flurry of similar bills cropping up in other states.

But in light of Perry’s bid for the GOP nomination, he has made a noticeably rightward shift on the immigration issue. In June, he attempted (and ultimately failed) to pass a measure banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” whereby police are prohibited from asking detainees about their immigration status. He also sought to expand the federal program Secure Communities, the controversial system that mandates local law enforcement to share information with the federal immigration agency, and supported the use of Predator drones along the U.S.-Mexico border for surveillance.

Despite these efforts, Perry’s record is already being billed as one of his biggest weaknesses as a Republican presidential contender. Earlier this month, former Congressman Tom Tancredo declared that Perry’s shift toward more hard-line immigration policies “don’t make up for the rest of his positions on immigration.” Fellow candidate Mitt Romney, who has fallen behind in the GOP race since Perry entered, will likely grill the Texas governor on his record at this weekend’s South Carolina forum organized by Senator Jim DeMint. Romney strategists believe the immigration issue will be devastating for Perry with Tea Party Republicans across the country — and especially in important primary states like Arizona,” columnist Marc A. Thiessen wrote at the Washington Post this week.

Over at the American Prospect, Adam Serwer muses on what Perry’s immigration record might do for the much-sought-after Latino vote in the upcoming election:

John McCain had about as moderate a record on immigration as a Republican can have. Obama still walked away with the vast majority of Hispanic votes, because those voters understood that moderate McCain was an outlier in a party of restrictionists. The far less moderate Perry isn’t likely to play much better on the issue.