Romney, Perry and Rubio: Immigration and the GOP in 2012

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Today’s Washington Post notes the fixation of hard-core Republican activists with illegal immigration, a phenomenon that became clear to me this spring when I saw a Republican voter suggest to Tim Pawlenty that the government threaten to shoot immigrants crossing the southern border. That sort of anger could cause headaches for Rick Perry who, despite his hard-driving populist bombast, actually has a relatively moderate record on the issue: In 2001 Perry supported a Texas law that would offer in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants (a state version of the DREAM Act that Republicans fiercely opposed in the Senate last year); he has called the construction of a border fence “idiocy;” he’s backed a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for border-jumpers. It was clear, then, to whom Mitt Romney was referring to on Friday morning when he volunteered to a group of Hispanic Republicans in Florida that he had vetoed a similar in-state tuition law, “strengthened the authority our state troopers had to enforce existing immigration laws,” and would “stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration.”

Of course, as with other Romney attacks on Perry, the former Massachusetts governor is tossing stones in a glass house, as noted in 2007. (That tough order to his trooper force, for instance, came at the very end of his tenure in Boston and never actually took effect.) And Perry has recently tacked to the right on the issue, with a batch of immigration-crackdown proposals that will at least give him a comeback when this issue comes up in debates and television ads.

Jon Chait properly notes that a primary duel to be mas macho over immigration will come back to haunt the GOP in the general election. The Hispanic share of America’s population isn’t shrinking, after all, and harsh rhetoric promises to not only alienate but mobilize Hispanic voters. It strikes me, and many a conservative, that this may be a problem only Marco Rubio can solve. As of now, Rubio insists he won’t be on the 2012 GOP ticket. You can bet he’ll have plenty of people asking him to reconsider.