SIOUX CITY, IOWA -- Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry made a new argument Saturday in defense of his actions to give children of undocumented immigrants in-state tuition to Texas universities, saying that it was a pro-growth economic decision.
"We wanted to make tax-payers, not tax-wasters," Perry said, speaking to about 100 voters at an Irish pub here in the northwest corner of the state, which the Texas governor called "Republican country."
Perry’s standing with conservative voters has been damaged over the past month in large part due to his decision in 2001 to approve the in-state tuition policy, and he made things worse by saying those who disagreed with him "don't have a heart." He subsequently apologized for that remark.
But Perry has not backtracked from his position, and on Saturday he made his most lengthy and detailed defense of the policy when a voter asked him about it during a question and answer session.
"Because of the absolute failure of the federal government to secure our border, states got forced upon them decisions on how you're going to deal with people in your state, because the federal government also says you gotta give them health care, you gotta have education," Perry said.
He continued, "And we decided as a state in 2001 that to deal with this population we had one of two choices: we could either kick them to the side of the road and say we'll deal with you as a tax waster, or we're going to give them the opportunity to pursue citizenship, to pay in-state tuition -- full fare, it's not subsidized in any form or fashion -- and be part of an educated workforce. That was the decision that the people of Texas made."
"We didn't have any other options from my perspective," he said. "One of the two. We chose the latter."
In remarks to the Values Voters Summit on Friday in Washington, and again to Iowa voters in the eastern part of the state on Friday night, Perry mentioned immigration during his prepared remarks and listed the ways in which he has cracked down on undocumented immigration: signing legislation to require identification to vote and vetoing legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to have drivers licenses. He did not mention the in-state tuition issue either time.
But when he was asked about it Saturday morning, he had a ready answer, and he then tried to pivot back to defending his record and his reputation.
"I've got a strong record on immigration from a standpoint of clearly being a rule of law person," he said. "But we cannot secure the border by ourselves in Texas. ... That’s the federal government's requirement."
Perry's wife, Anita, then chimed in from the front row of seats, and instructed him to point out that children of undocumented immigrants were pursuing a "path to citizenship" and to mention the voter I.D. law, which the governor had already mentioned earlier.
"My wife just reminded me, which she is very good about doing," Perry said to laughter and applause, "these young people are pursuing citizenship, and we also passed a couple of other really strong issues in Texas on drivers licenses, vetoing legislation for anyone who is in our country illegally ... and we passed voter I.D."
Perry's top rival in the Republican primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has pressed the issue to make sure it does not go away. His campaign released a memo listing Perry’s record on the 2001 law, and a campaign spokesman sent around a comment on Perry's defense of the tuition policy.
"Rick Perry has consistently supported liberal policies that encourage illegal immigration," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "He opposes a border fence and signed legislation that provides taxpayer backed benefits to illegal immigrants. His liberal immigration policies are out of step with Iowa values and wrong for our country."