Perry, Illegals, and In-State Tuition

As many of you, I watched the GOP Debate from Orlando last night with something approaching exasperation. The kabuki theater that is the modern day political “debate” is a bit hard to take sometimes. So much of the so-called analysis is around style, delivery, who came off “looking Presidential” and the like.

But one exchange last night that really caught my eye, and left something memorable was the attack on Perry by… well… everyone on stage on the issue of the Texas law that provides in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. Rick Perry did a particular poor job of defending his position on this, but at the same time, watching the glee and gusto with which Romney (ROMNEY! of all people), Santorum, and others went after Perry makes me wonder what the hell they’re thinking.

What Perry Should Have Said

There is no doubt in my mind that Rick Perry was over-prepped. At times he looked like a particular dumb student trying to remember the answers to a test for which he had crammed the night before. His answers to the in-state tuition issue were incoherent at times, and he did not advance his candidacy at all with his failure to explain the overall position vis-a-vis illegal immigration.

The first point he should have made, with force and clarity, is that no matter what you might think of the Texas law, it’s a Texas issue, dammit, and Texans can decide through its legislature how Texans want to handle public universities. If you don’t like our policies, go the hell to your own state university. Refer back to the 10th Amendment, which is one of his signature positions. He did say 181 members of Texas legislature with only 4 dissents, but that left it open to Santorum’s attack. He needed to repeat this point again: it’s a TEXAS issue. If TEXANS want to “subsidize” illegals for TEXAS universities, then that’s our business.

The second point he should have made is that the problem with illegal immigration is the ILLEGAL part, not the IMMIGRATION part. This is perhaps a too-subtle point, but it needs to be made somehow, by somebody, and who better than the governor of a large border state with hundreds of years of free movement between Mexico and Texas? He made the point about the children of illegals who came here through no choice of their own, but that was lost in all the “magnet” talk and “subsidy” talk. The point he needed to make is that what he and the Republicans and even the wider conservative movement want is to enforce our laws, not to vilify immigrants. (I’d like to address this one in greater depth below, so hold on to any critical response.)

The third point he should have made, particularly against Romney’s (ROMNEY??? REALLY???) whole “it’s a $100K subsidy” line of attack, is that if students living in Massachusetts want the in-state tuition, all they have to do is become a resident of Texas. (See here for details) He could have expanded that line into a positive, “We want people coming to Texas, to become Texans, to add to our economy in Texas, to join our Texas community.”

The Problem With Illegal Immigration

My larger point is that the GOP (and by extension, the conservative movement) appears to be moving towards a position that is both (a) politically improvident, and (b) morally out of character. I base this on the fact that Perry was booed last night by the attendees, and that wide swaths of the base think of him as being “weak on immigration”.

I really would like to believe that our party, and our conservative movement, agrees with me that the problem with illegal immigration is the “illegal” part, not the “immigration” part. Sen. Marco Rubio is a clear example of immigrants not only adding to the richness of this country, but in some ways, understanding even better than “natives” what is so special and so unique about the United States. We give a lot of lip service to the idea — on both the Left and the Right — that United States is a “nation of immigrants”.

Stories about hardworking immigrants coming to this country with nothing to end up being pillars of their local communities abound, not because they’re just useful tales to be told on the campaign trail by one politician or another, but because they are true. That America is the land of opportunity is proven day in and day out by millions of immigrants.

The problem then is not immigrants, but how they got here.

If they got here legally, following the rules, then we all should (and most of time, do) celebrate them, welcome them into the American society, and give them all sorts of opportunities for a better life for themselves and their children. And in return, immigrants enrich all of us, quite literally in many cases, by starting businesses, improving neighborhoods, buying homes here, and undertaking their unique American journey.

Yes, we can have debates about how we as a society have lost our way culturally thanks to the multiculturalism infecting our media, our academy, and our government. We can and should talk about things like English as the national language (and I say this as an immigrant who didn’t know any English landing on these shores). We can and should talk about how American history is taught, how we apparently do not value American values enough to ask newcomers to adopt those same values, and so forth. We can and should discuss how many immigrants we want, under what circumstances, and for what reasons.

But in that discussion, I believe the average American of whatever political stripe believes something like the following:

  1. We will not accept bad guys, and have the right to make life miserable for them.
  2. We will not tolerate freeloaders who come here just to have access to all sorts of social safety net goodies.
  3. But we do want the honest folks who are just seeking a better life to be able to come here, add to our society, and make something of themselves. In fact, we admire those folks quite a bit, and often look to them for inspiration on how hard we ourselves should be working to succeed.
  4. Folks who are getting all worked up about the honest immigrants are, in fact, heartless — as Perry said last night.

There is, I believe, a sort of hierarchy of dislike when it comes to illegal immigrants in the American subconsciousness. At the top of that list are the criminals, gangsters, and bad elements. But we’d hate those people even if they came to the country legally. Bad people are bad people, period, whatever their immigration status.

Second on the list are the freeloaders.

Third on the list may be the ‘cultural imperialists’ who come to America just to make money, but never, ever intend to become an American. I can personally attest that Asian communities are most susceptible to this sort of immigrant (whether legal or illegal) who come here to make money, to create a better life for their families, and so on, but have a visceral disdain for “American culture” or “American values”.

Somewhere near the very bottom of the list has got to be the children of immigrants who had absolutely no choice whether to come here or not. They were brought here by their parents. They did the best they could to adjust to a new situation — like my kids are adjusting to being in Texas instead of New Jersey — and grew up as they could.

Of all of the people to target, does it really make sense to target these kids? To tell them that despite the fact that you had nothing to do with the lawbreaking, despite the fact that if you’ve actually gotten to the point where you want to be applying to attend college where you grew up, where you went to school, despite all of that… we’re going to vilify them of all people?

Yeah, sorry, that is heartless.

The Uniqueness That May Be Texas

As a new immigrant to Texas from New Jersey (and yes, that’s how I feel the move is for someone who spent his formative years in the Northeast liberal elite enclaves), one major difference I noticed right away is how much more ‘integration’ there is in Texas between “Americans” and “Mexicans”. There are Mexican-Americans in Texas whose families have lived in Texas for generations, but are from the border areas where commerce, culture, trade, and influences overlap. There is, in fact, a reason why the cuisine known as “Tex-Mex” exists.

And one thing I’ve become fairly aware of is that there is a uniqueness to Texas. There is an indescribable Texan identity, a Texan culture, that overlays everything and everyone. You could be the descendant of original Mayflower pilgrims, but if you come into Texas from Massachusetts… you lack that Texan identity, that Texan “thing” which sets you apart from your neighbors.

As a result, where in places like New Jersey or Pennsylvania, there are real cultural differences between the mainstream “Anglo” community and the ethnic communities, in Texas, there is a sense of a Texan identity/culture that goes on top of the ethno-cultural differences.

I could very easily see how the people of Texas, through their legislature, could make the determination that the kids who grew up in Texas, went to Texas schools, love Texas high school football, root for the Dallas Cowboys, love the rodeo, go fishing and hunting, and so on and so forth are fellow TEXANS… even if their parents came here illegally. I could understand that. I could very easily understand how out of 181 legislators, only 4 opposed the law in question.

Of course, after Perry’s performance, and given the importance of the illegal immigration issue, I’m now sure that this particular Texas law would be demagogued to death by all of the other candidates. That is truly unfortunate.

Because in a real way, that law provides a way to thread the narrow path between the Scylla of Open Borders crowd and the Charybdis of anti-immigrant nativists. It is a way to showcase that as a party, as a movement, what we want is the enforcement of our laws first and foremost, control over our borders second, and all of it tempered with the understanding that immigrants are not to blame.

I hope Perry will get his story and his message straight. But more than that, I hope we all in the base come to understand the distinction and come to agree that we can be strongly for enforcement, that we can demand our borders be controlled, that we implement programs (like e-Verify) that combats illegal activities… while we can also be strongly pro-immigrant, and celebrate those who actually want to become an American.

If the kid who wants to go to UT Austin, who went to high school in Texas, who was brought here by his parents, is not one of those people who actually want to become an American if given the chance… then I don’t know who is.

To take away the opportunity for that kid to become a fully functioning American, out from under the shadows… well, that is heartless.