As the Republican presidential primary campaign season begins to generate buzz in the media, immigration has been conspicuously absent from public debates. Nevertheless, candidates such as Gov. Rick Perry are aggressively courting Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a virulently anti-illegal-immigration crusader notorious for the way he treats his prisoners. Perry would do well to avoid Arpaio and immigration as political issues.
The self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” Arpaio has been a deeply polarizing national figure since his 1992 election as Maricopa County sheriff. A former federal narcotics agent, Arpaio garnered headlines for forcing his county prisoners to wear pink underwear, eat outdated green bologna and live in a ‘Tent City’ made up of Korean War-era military tents that reached temperatures of 138 degrees during a heat wave.
The sheriff has come under acute public scrutiny in the wake of Arizona passing increasingly restrictive laws against illegal immigration. Hispanic neighborhoods in Maricopa County have borne the brunt of Arpaio’s “crime sweeps,” as many Hispanic residents have been arrested for minor traffic-related offenses and live in fear of racial profiling by the police.
Republican candidates, seeking to bolster their “tough-on-illegals” credentials to an increasingly conservative core of primary voters, spent much of last week calling Arpaio and visiting his office in downtown Phoenix to seek his endorsement. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota posed for the cameras next to Arpaio last Wednesday and declared him to be one of her heroes. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who received Arpaio’s endorsement back in 2008, spoke to the sheriff on the phone last week, according to The Texas Tribune.
The immigration issue is particularly dicey for Perry, as his record has certainly lacked the ideological purity espoused by his rivals. For one, Perry has bucked the wishes of many conservatives by openly opposing a border fence with Mexico. He also signed off on granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in 2001 and opposed Arizona’s SB 1070, which required immigrants to carry their documents with them at all times.
Perry has feverishly worked to contact Arpaio to neutralize his rivals exploiting this ideological divide on immigration. By securing the endorsement of an icon of the nativist right, the Perry campaign hopes to mollify Tea Party stalwarts just enough so they don’t perceive him as too soft on illegal immigration.
Indeed, Perry has undergone a gradual and elaborate metamorphosis on his position on illegals, lurching ever rightward to appease an increasingly intractable and partisan base. When The Dallas Morning News published a report a decade ago indicating Perry was unreceptive to amnesty for illegals, the newly-appointed governor felt compelled to reply on July, 28, 2001:
“I am intrigued and open to the Bush administration’s amnesty proposal. Most Texans would agree that it’s better to have legal, taxpaying immigrants from Mexico working in the United States than illegal immigrants living in fear of the law and afraid to access basic services.”
Perhaps a tiger can’t change its stripes, but would Perry stick to his original pro-amnesty convictions or flip-flop for expediency? It seems unlikely, given Perry’s support for a ‘sanctuary cities’ bill that would have penalized Texas cities such as Austin and Houston that declined to inquire potential suspects of their immigration status. The bill failed to pass this year.
Arpaio, for his part, has been intentionally coy as to whether he’ll endorse Perry. Essentially ignoring Perry’s perceived transgressions, Arpaio told The Texas Tribune he was personally fond of Perry and could still endorse the governor by looking “at the big picture” in what type of president he’d be.
Yet by being too aggressive in trying to downplay his immigration record, Perry risks putting himself in needless trouble. Perry’s meteoric rise as the Republicans’ current frontrunner is because of one issue: the economy. Republicans know the anemic state of the national economy, combined with Obama’s seemingly hapless inability to reverse the situation, will be their cardinal pitch in 2012.
And when they smell blood in the water, many Republican voters would be loath to hand another victory to the true central character of the race, Obama, if they were to forward a loser more rigid on immigration
America’s changing demographics and its increasing Hispanic population also serve as a buffer against conservative stridency on immigration. Hispanics may end up as the decisive voting bloc in key swing states such as Nevada and Florida. Although Perry is quite unlikely to win a majority of the Hispanic vote overall, many Hispanics who would otherwise stay home may ramp up voter turnout for Obama if they feel their civil liberties are threatened.
Perry may score points with the Republican base in the short term by adopting Arpaio’s creed, but shifting to the right on immigration will surely hurt his candidacy in the general election.
Quazi is a nursing graduate student.