Less than two months into Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy, a record on illegal immigration that served him well politically as a border-state governor is proving a tough sell with voters looking toward Iowa’s Republican caucuses this winter.
It came up unbidden in the crowd of neighbors waiting recently for the Texas governor to drop by Uncle Nancy’s Coffeehouse in Newton, the former corporate home of the washing-machine giant Maytag.
“I’m not sure I like Perry’s approach to immigration,” said Doug Ringger, a retired Maytag marketing man. “That concerns me a little bit — or a lot. I haven’t heard him say we need to seal the borders.”
Iowa voters are not alone in expressing such concerns, though they might seem jarring in a state whose small towns and cornfields are hundreds of miles from the nation’s southern border. The state has faced little of the political turmoil over illegal immigration that has long been a staple of politics in California, Arizona, Texas and other places that are home to greater numbers of undocumented workers.
But the 2008 arrest of nearly 400 illegal immigrants at a meatpacking plant in Postville highlighted the arrival of undocumented workers in Iowa as never before. At the same time, the growth of Iowa’s Latino population has sparked discomfort among some of the white conservatives who dominate the Republican caucuses.
Though Iowa remains the sixth-whitest state in America, its Latino population has surged from 33,000 in 1990 to 152,000 last year, census figures show. Even in the absence of precise figures showing how many residents are undocumented, that cultural shift has helped turn illegal immigration into a key issue for Republican caucus voters, said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines.
“That presence, particularly with regard to very small-town rural Republicans who tend to think the country they know is disappearing, this becomes a problem for them,” Goldford said.
The main troubles for Republicans in Iowa, as elsewhere, are Perry’s opposition to a border fence stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and his signing of a bill allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state tuition at public colleges in Texas. (He sparked additional anger by contending in last week’s debate that those who didn’t share his views on in-state tuition were heartless.)
Greeting Perry recently in the parking lot outside a restaurant in Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River, was a cluster of protesters waving signs assailing his immigration record. Ron Duncan, a retired Harrison County truck driver wearing a black Iowa Minuteman cap, carried a placard that read, “Gov. Perry — No in-state tuition for illegal aliens.”
“Perry is horrible,” Duncan, a leader of a local Tea Party Patriots group, said of the governor, who was one of the first politicians to embrace the “tea party” movement.
Perry did not mention immigration in his remarks to Republicans gathered across the parking lot on a patio outside Tish’s Restaurant. That is his typical practice: He rarely speaks about immigration unless questioned or confronted in a debate. But immigration was on the minds of many who came to hear him, even if they largely welcomed his folksy style, his tribute to moral values and his conservative fiscal rhetoric.
At a picnic-table Republican dinner in Greene County, Bill Glawe, a corn and soybean farmer, spoke with Perry about the drought ravaging crops in Texas. But after Perry’s speech to the crowd, Glawe was still skeptical, wondering whether the tuition bill meant he was too soft on illegal immigration.
“No more freebies, no more free delivering babies, no more Social Security, no more food stamps, no more free education — you pay your way,” Glawe said.
A few days later, Perry rival Michele Bachmann, campaigning at a grain-processing-equipment factory in Franklin County, hammered the governor for his stands on the border fence and college tuition.
“I do not believe that American taxpayers should be subsidizing benefits for people who are in this country illegally or for their children, and I hear that all across Iowa from people,” Bachmann said in response to a question.
Perry’s approach to illegal immigration reflects a pragmatism shared by other border-state Republicans, among them former President George W. Bush, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. John McCain of Arizona — though McCain toughened his stance in his reelection bid last year by growling in a campaign ad that the country needed to “complete the danged fence.”
Even under assault from other candidates in Thursday’s presidential debate, Perry insisted that a border fence is unrealistic and that the tuition law enabled immigrants whose undocumented status was no fault of their own to become productive citizens.
“There is nobody on this stage who has spent more time working on border security than I have,” Perry said during the debate in Florida. He cited $400 million in state money spent on border security, including patrols by “Texas Ranger recon teams.”
Ray Sullivan, communications director of Perry’s campaign, said illegal immigration would not be a big obstacle in Iowa, regardless of how aggressively his rivals exploited the issue.
“The governor’s strong entry and fast rise in the race has led our opponents to attack on everything,” he said. Other Perry advocates have insisted that the issue will pale next to concerns about jobs.
Yet Bill Salier, a farmer and former U.S. Senate candidate who has been outspoken on illegal immigration, said Perry faced an uphill task in winning over the caucus voters who cared most about the issue. Salier recalled that he and several like-minded Republicans were put off by Perry’s statement at another Florida debate that the Texas tuition law was “sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you.”
“The left uses that lingo to hype people up,” said Salier, who rejected the implication that race was a factor in opposition to illegal immigration. “That turned a lot of people off right there.”