Even the Aggie Faithful Buck Perry on Immigration

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Wesley Hitt / Getty Images

Pregame activity on the campus of Texas A&M University on Nov. 25, 2005, in College Station, Texas.

Texas Aggies are famous for their loyalty and their adherence to tradition. The sight of the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band marching to martial airs swells the chest of any A&M alumnus, but that does’t mean they all walk in lockstep — as perhaps the country’s most famous Aggie these days, Texas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, is discovering. A campus student group, Texas Aggie Conservatives, is taking aim at Perry over his support for in-state tuition for certain illegal alien students.

Justin Pulliam, a TAC member, told the Bryan Eagle newspaper that Perry’s stance on the issue is “troubling” and the group is questioning Perry’s conservative bona fides. The so-called Texas Dream Act passed overwhelmingly in 2001 with support from both parties. It was the sort of compassionate conservatism that had appeal a decade ago. “To punish these young Texans for their parents’ actions is not what America has always been about,” Perry told the New Hampshire Union Leader shortly before he launched his bid for the GOP nomination in August. But George W. Bush-style compassion is a thing of the past for many  conservatives, as Perry discovered in an early debate performance when his have-a-heart approach drew audience boos.

Some 300 of the 12,000 students currently enjoy discounted in-state tuition under the Texas Dream Act attend A&M, where tuition for state residents is roughly a quarter of out-of-state costs. To be eligible for in-state tuition, a student who is an illegal resident must have attended a Texas high school for three years prior to college and must pledge to seek permanent resident status.

When he came under fire for supporting the law, Perry first sought to cast the issue as a humane solution to a state problem, and then as a sensible approach to ensure that a college-educated illegal resident intent on gaining citizenship will be less of a burden on the state. That approach worked in his home state, where there’s what Texas Tribune editor Ross Ramsey describes as a “Texas sensibility” on the issue of illegal immigration. But it’s a hard sell on the hard right as Perry grapples for position in the national arena.

And the immigration issue is gnawing at his campaign.  In September, a Texas Tea party group urged Perry to call a special session of the legislature to re-address legislation eliminating so-called sanctuary cities, calling for police to make mandatory requests for proof of legal residency during stops and arrests. Now, TAC is adding its voice to the mix with an online petition for a special session to repeal the hot-button in-state tuition law. By Tuesday, they had collected some 200 signatures.

Perry declined to call a special session last month following the Tea Party request and he is unlikely to do so on the tuition issue, even at the behest of a group of self-described Aggie conservatives. In a state with a rich Hispanic culture and an historic, symbiotic relationship with Mexico, particularly in the border region where so many residents have a foot on either side, both repeal of in-state tuition and calls for the elimination of so-called sanctuary cities are issues that have little traction. But Perry’s problem is that he is not running in Texas.

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