Perry's Immigration Problem: Even Bigger than it Looks
Byron York hasthis morning about the immigration issue and its potentially negative impact on Gov. Rick Perry's presidential candidacy:
Start with the border fence. Perry opposes it. "Building a wall on the entire border is a preposterous idea," he said recently in New Hampshire. "The only thing a wall would possibly accomplish is to help the ladder business." Perry says he supports some forms of "strategic fencing in certain urban areas," but that's all.
Then there are measures to stop employers from hiring illegals. Perry opposes E-verify, which is a program requiring employers to check the legal status of new hires. It has been very effective in stopping the hiring of illegals, but Perry does not support requiring private businesses to use it, and he doesn't want state agencies in Texas to use it, either. "E-verify would not make a hill of beans' difference in what's happening today," Perry said in a 2010 debate.
Then there is taxpayer-subsidized, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Perry signed the Texas Dream Act in 2001 making it the law in Texas. "We must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom, 'We don't care where you came from, but where you are going,'" Perry said at the time. "The message is simple: Educacion es el futuro, y si se puede." Perry still supports the measure.
Finally there is the question of guest workers. "I support a guest worker program that takes undocumented workers off the black market and legitimizes their economic contributions without providing them citizenship status," Perry said in 2006. "A guest worker program that provides foreign workers with an ID removes the incentive for millions of people to illegally enter our country." To critics, that's just amnesty with a different label.
Some will interpret Perry's relaxed views on immigration as a rare indication of a more humane side to the otherwise hardline Texas conservative. Maybe.
But here's another way to understand Perry's stance:
Texas has pursued a distinctive economic strategy: drive down all costs of doing business, especially including wages.
Texas workers receive some of the lowest wages in the nation; by some metrics, the very lowest. The encouragement of heavy unskilled immigration from Mexico and central America is an integral - even indispensable - element of the Texas low-wage job-creation strategy.
Perry's views on immigration are not a "liberal" deviation from his views on the minimum wage, on Social Security, on healthcare coverage, etc. His high-immigration views are of a piece with his general preference for a low-cost, low-wage economy.
By contrast, Mitt Romney has begun to articulate a call for a high-wage economy. To get average wages rising again after a dozen years first of stagnation, then of outright decline, will not be easy. The most important step is to control healthcare costs. The rising cost of healthcare benefits devours workers' cash pay.
But a rethink of immigration policies is also necessary. In the September 7 debate, Romney articulated something almost never said in a Republican primary: much, much, much more important than a fence or "boots on the ground" is tighter enforcement of labor laws inside the country. I'd go further: if the labor laws were effectively enforced, a border fence would be a costly redundance.
Why have labor laws gone so badly enforced? In very large part: because Rick Perry's donors don't want them enforced. The National Restaurant Association does not want them enforced. The construction industry does not want them enforced. Meatpackers do not want them enforced. The hotel and landscaping industries do not want them enforced. When you hear Republican candidates complain of "burdensome regulation," keep in mind that the regulations that many small businesses find most "burdensome" are those intended to reserve American jobs for American legal residents.
On that issue, Gov. Perry has been, is now, and continues to be an advocate of laxer rules to promote more immigration in order to hold Texas and ultimately American wages low.