Rick Perry Walks An Immigration Tightrope

In what may have been the most surreal moment of the present GOP presidential campaign, Arizona’s sheriff Joe Arpaio tweeted this:

Just received phone call at my house from TX. Gov. Rick Perry. Had a great conversation especially about immigration and other matters.

I’m not sure if Perry intended his phone chat with a standard bearer of anti-immigrant rage to be shared with the public at large – it may have been an unintended consequence. But it shows the corner he painted himself into when he announced his candidacy for the White House.

In the Tea Party led GOP there is no immigration middle ground: you either want to build a border wall and chase folks back from where they came, in which case you’re a patriot; or you want open borders and amnesty, in which case you’re an anti-American socialist. Perry’s got nowhere to hang his hat. But that’s a problem of his own making.

He’s the one that cozied-up to the Tea Party; he’s the one that proclaimed sanctuary cities to be a state priority; but he’s also the one that openly opposes a border fence (according to the Associated Press he recently told a New Hampshire crowd “…if you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good.”) and granted in-state tuition for undocumented students in Texas universities.

He’s walking the immigration tightrope – a hard thing to do when you’re wearing cowboy boots – by trying to be a moderate and chatting up Sheriff Joe at the same time.  Meanwhile, his opponents are busy taking down the net. Mitt Romney has taken aim. He didn’t mention Perry by name, but according to the Miami Herald he told a crowd in Tampa:

“We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration,’’ Romney told more than 100 people attending a Republican Hispanic conference. “As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants and I strengthened the authority our state troopers had to enforce existing immigration laws.”

The problem for Perry is that immigration may become the litmus test for GOP presidential hopefuls. He’s got to veer further to the right in order to have a chance at the Republican nomination – the Tea Party, with their all-or-nothing mentality, has taken over the GOP so that a hard-line is the new mid-line. So a call to Arpaio seems like a smart move. I guess he’s hoping people will forget, and once he get’s the nomination nod he can start his move to the center.

If that’s the case he should have ended his conversation with Arpaio by saying, “by the way Joe, tell your friends about our talk, but don’t tweet this.”

But the damage is done. Immigration is quickly becoming a main issue in the GOP presidential race, the candidates are going to have to stake their claims far to the right in order to survive. Perry is going to be left running from his own shadow. He’s got a reputation as an immigration moderate among the Tea Party GOP. But now he’s rubbing elbows with the likes of Joe Arpaio, and that won’t sit well with independents who balk at anyone that extreme.

This is what looks like, as reported in thinkprogress.org:

Earlier this year, Perry indicated that if the U.S. achieved border security, he could envision a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are already here. But at an August event in New Hampshire, Perry changed his mind, saying, “You gotta come up with a way that clearly stays away from this issue of making individuals legal citizens of the United States if they haven’t gone through the proper process.”

Not that it should surprise anyone, at least not this early in the campaign.

Follow Victor Landa on Twitter: @vlanda

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