09/13/2011 12:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rick Perry Faces Backlash Over In-State Tuition For Undocumented Students (VIDEO)

WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential hopefuls sparred in a Monday evening debate over immigration, with candidates piling onto Texas Gov. Rick Perry for providing in-state college tuition to some undocumented students.

Candidate Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, committed a minor gaffe when he may have inadvertently equated Latinos with "illegals" in his criticism of Perry. (There's some debate over whether Santorum said "the legal vote" -- listen for yourself here.)

"What what Gov. Perry has done is he provided in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, maybe that was an attempt to attract the illegal vote -- I mean Latino -- voters," Santorum said.

Others said the law, which Perry signed in 2001, was essentially the same as the DREAM Act, a congressional bill that would provide legal status to undocumented immigrants seeking education or serving in the military in the United States.

In fact, the two bills are only similar in name, with both referred to as the DREAM Act. State-level bills allow for in-state tuition but no legal status -- a far cry from the national bill which would provide pathways to legal status for some undocumented students and military service members. The national bill leaves the decision of whether to provide in-state tuition up to the states.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer first made the comparison, asking candidate and congresswoman Michele Bachmann whether the Texas Dream Act is the basically the DREAM Act pushed by President Barack Obama.

"It's very similar," she responded. "And I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally. That is not the American way."

Perry pointed out that he does not support the national DREAM Act, which failed to pass the Senate last December.

"I'm not for the DREAM Act that they are talking about in Washington, D.C., that is amnesty," he said. "What we did in the state of Texas was clearly a states' rights issue."

The candidates differed somewhat over how to appeal to Latino voters, beyond the issue of state-level DREAM Acts. Santorum said Latino voters could be won over by making English the official language of the United States.

"My father and my grandfather came to this country not speaking a word of English, but it was the greatest gift to my father to have to learn English so he could assimilate into this country," Santorum said. "We are a melting pot, not a salad bowl, and we need to continue that tradition."