Remember Rick Perry? That tough-talking, gun-slinging, boot-wearing, job-creating machine from the Lone Star State? It turns out things haven’t been going too well for him. First he mumbled his way through the GOP debates, managing to sound loopier than even Michele “The MMR Vaccine Causes Autism” Bachmann. Then there were revelations about his unfortunately named hunting camp. Then he completely forgot one of the three branches of government he plans to cut. (Oops.) These were all minor scandals caused either by Perry’s ineptitude or by things beyond his control.
But in the middle of Perry’s disaster-strewn campaign (otherwise known as Jon Stewart’s dream come true) was another minor scandal that wasn’t caused by ineptitude or an unfortunate family vacation choice. It was a scandal in which Perry was absolutely right, yet still managed to insult potential voters and then immediately back down.
In the Sept. 22 GOP debate, Perry defended his decision to provide in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, saying that those who disagree with him “don’t have a heart.” Ouch. The Republican establishment was shocked and jilted. In the next few days, Perry’s rivals tried to capitalize on his comment. Rick Santorum called Perry “soft on illegal immigration” and Michele Bachmann said, “We need a president who will enforce our laws and our borders.” A few days after that, Perry gave an interview in which he stood by his policy, but claimed he regretted the “don’t have a heart” statement.
Two months later, it looks like Rick Perry is well on his way to making a blustering exit from the race for the Republican nomination. I will miss his gaffes, if not his candor. But his departure or defeat or slow fade into the second tier will leave a Republican field missing one of its few sensible voices on benefits for illegal immigrants. To be clear, I’m not calling Rick Perry sensible on the broader issue of immigration — he supported the Arizona immigration bill, for example — but on this one particular facet of this one particular issue, Perry made sense.
The Texas law he defended provides benefits only to immigrants who have been in Texas for more than three years and have been accepted at an accredited university. Altogether, these illegal immigrants account for only 1 percent of Texas college students, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The bill was passed in 2001 with 177 out of 181 votes, and it “created a national movement,” according to The Dallas Morning News.
As Perry put it, “Are we going to have tax wasters or tax payers?” Are we going to callously force the best and brightest illegal immigrants — many of whom were brought here involuntarily as children — to remain unskilled their whole lives, or are we going to give them the chance to better themselves, to become productive members of society?
I started thinking about all of this when I received a save-the-date email about “An Evening Conversation with Jose Antonio Vargas” hosted by Yale Law School. Vargas is the perfect example of why a program like Perry’s is absolutely necessary for American college students.
In a startling essay published this summer, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” Vargas described how he was brought to the United States from the Philippines at age 12 and had to forge and finagle his way into college. Through a series of lucky breaks and with the help of friends and hard work, Vargas paid for college. He graduated and went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Vargas is the perfect example of what an intelligent person can accomplish, even if he is guilty of the sin of having been brought here — illegally, though he didn’t know it — as a child. With the benefit of in-state tuition, Vargas’s struggle — and those of countless others like him — could have been that much easier.
Perry’s program doesn’t even provide a path for citizenship, and it is certainly not comparable to the DREAM Act. It just provides in-state tuition to the most promising of illegal immigrants. It is the sparsest, most meager benefit to students who have overcome so much just to get into college. It will help all of us in the long run, because we will have more educated people and fewer unskilled illegals.
Like it or not, millions of illegal immigrants are here to stay. Why should it be so controversial for Perry to support a program that provides a fraction of them a minute measure of assistance? With just a small amount of help, these immigrants can achieve wonders — as Vargas has. Understanding this doesn’t take a “heart,” as Perry suggests. It just takes a brain.
Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.