09/13/2011 07:18 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Immigrants Helped Give Rick Perry His 'Texas Miracle'

For much of his tenure as governor of Texas, Rick Perry's record on immigration made him a darling of Latino Republicans. He supported a law that let the children of undocumented immigrants pay discounted rates at Texas universities, and shunned the aggressive approach that has made Arizona the nucleus of the anti-immigration movement, saying he didn't think it would be right for Texas.

In recent months, though, he's alienated many of those supporters by making the sorts of decisions a politician might make if he were, say, courting the right-wing, anti-immigration slice of the electorate in an attempt to win a Republican presidential primary. In June, he backed the state's controversial "sanctuaries cities" bill, which, like Arizona's SB 1070 law, was intended to ramp up enforcement against undocumented immigrants. And earlier this month, he met with Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff responsible for deporting 26,000 undocumented immigrants between 2007 and 2010 -- about a quarter of the total deported nationally during that period.

Of course, Perry is hardly breaking ground by veering to the right on immigration during a Republican primary campaign. What makes his situation unusual is the role that immigrants, and, more broadly, Mexico, have played in his ascent.

By now, there's hardly anyone in the country who hasn't heard of the feat widely known as the "Texas Miracle." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas has added more than 700,000 jobs during Perry's decade in office, seven times as many as any other state.

But while Perry, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, and his supporters tend to attribute this growth to the governor's conservative economic policies, there are many economists who feel that credit should be distributed among a wide range of factors, including immigration and the state's close relationship with Mexico.

"Mexicans come over to shop on this side," explained Pia M. Orrenius, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, "and now even more so because the service industry and the leisure and hospitality industries in Mexico have been decimated by the violence. The Mexicans would rather shop and eat out here in the U.S. than do so in their own cities."

It's no accident, Orrenius said, that the leisure and hospitality industries in Texas have added thousands of jobs since the recession -- think of all those restaurants and malls catering to day-trippers from Juarez and Matamoros. And it's not just cross-border commerce that's been driving the economy. Even though immigration from Mexico has slowed in recent years as Texas has lost jobs in the construction sector, it continues to play an important role in Texas' growth, she said.

"On average you'll see that states with high economic growth you have high rates of labor force growth," Orrenius said, "and we get about half our labor force growth from inmigration" -- migration from other states -- "and immigration."

Although migrants from other U.S. states represent a growing segment of Texas' population of newcomers, about 40 percent of new arrivals still come from other countries, according to U.S. census data from the past three years. "If you have high rates of job growth that outstrip your own population growth, then states have to supplement that," Orrenius said.

Don Baylor Jr., an analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priority in Austin, gave a one-word answer when asked to explain the "Texas Miracle."

"People," he said.

As the economy has grown, he said, so has Texas' population, and he noted that the two types of growth fuel each other, with job opportunities attracting migrants and the resulting population boom leading to an increased demand for goods and services. "Obviously we share the largest border with Mexico," he said, "and that’s certainly a piece of it."

Baylor pointed out that one of the sectors that has added the most jobs in the last few years is education and health. "Quite simply," he said, "we’re talking about everything from private health care positions at hospitals to nursing home care to developmentally disabled care to childcare." As the general population increases, so does the demand for those services, and Latino immigrants are often called upon to fill such jobs, Baylor said. According to a 2009 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, 10 percent of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2008 had jobs that fell under a broad category that includes education and health services. By comparison, only 4 percent had jobs in the category that includes agriculture.

One common retort to Perry's boasts about Texas' job market is that most of the new jobs in the state pay low wages. But some economists say that many of those jobs are filled by immigrants, and that even a low-wage job could represent the first rung on the ladder of economic advancement for an immigrant from Mexico.

Jeanne Batalova, an analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, said it was reasonable to conclude from from the organization's analysis of U.S. census data that immigrants have indeed fueled job growth in the "low-skilled sector." She noted that the number of immigrants in the Texas workforce grew by 5 percent between 2007 and 2009 -- and that those immigrants were disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs -- while the rest of the workforce actually stagnated. For every 100 workers who did not have a high school degree, 60 were immigrants, she said.

For Texans, the state's dependence on Mexico is no secret. "Every Texan knows, I think, that Mexico has been a source of growth for the state and a source of strength for the economy," Orrenius said.

As the most powerful Texan in the state, Perry could perhaps take credit for that, especially considering that he was once seen as a leader who cultivated close relationships with Latinos. But for now, Perry's support of anti-immigration legislation may suggest that he and his advisers feel there is more to be gained by appealing to people who view immigration as a danger, not as an asset.