For anyone even superficially aware of the American political drama, presidential debates vie for the title of ‘most obnoxious’ public ritual. In addition to the uninspired curatorship and oblique responses, there is the tendency for every special-interest group in the beltway to emerge from the subterranean pandemonium of lobbying and place its message in the light.
Not the least of these has been the growing anti-immigrant movement, and the recent debates have ignited a spate of activity from its constituent organizations. And the common theme among them, aside from hating immigrants, is their incessant derision of Rick Perry.
A late-comer to the race, the Texas Governor’s alacritous flight to become a front-running candidate was met with some notable resistance, generally from Tea Party and other self-proclaimed “patriotic” (or nationalist) organizations.
Much less intractable than most of his opponents, many describe Perry as the highly electable “moderate,” another governor from Texas who banks on his Evangelicism and audacious foreign policy. In general, his politics are more of the same lifted out of the neoconservative lexicon, a vocabulary that has little to say for the xenophobia of the inexorable right-wing. Thus, Perry’s more permissive stance on immigration, including support for the DREAM Act, constantly draws fire from hardline “patriots,” while career nativists guide their protests.
As a more ‘typical’ Republican, Perry’s debate strategy has centered on the economy and the classical methods to remedy it. But after making claims about his contribution to job growth in Texas, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), an organization founded by the white nationalist John Tanton, released a report contending that most of these new jobs went to immigrants. While admitting that Perry did make efforts to create employment, CIS reported that the majority of beneficiaries were non-nationals—a suspiciously high 80%.
Predictably, the dramatic figures garnered attention. Once flying under the radar on his immigration stance, Perry has received an unprecedented amount of press over his immigration views, generally due to dubious reports disseminated by the anti-immigrant lobby.
Organizations related to CIS, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA, relentlessly work to brand Perry as too “lax” or “liberal,” failing to mention that their own projects began too far to the right—at times even flirting with eugenics, ultranationalism and white supremacism. They have effectively shaped the name “conservative” to mean someone with an uncompromising policy to restrict the ingress of immigrants and deport the ones here undocumented, a stance not even Reagan would adopt.
Immigrants’ rights groups, moderates and progressives have tenuously lauded Perry while attacking the fictitious basis of these claims. In the case of the recent CIS report, one Texas economist went as far as to submit it to an extensive audit, finding problems with the methodology and figures used to make such drastic claims. This prompted responses from CIS’s executive director, Mark Krikorian, and the report’s author, both of whom defend the research.
And, as statistics beget more statistics, this procedure will presumably continue ad infinitum with the nativists presenting their numbers, the opposition presenting theirs, and the public thoroughly diverted from the actual issue. In this sense, the anti-immigrant lobby has already won.
While the press and interest groups bicker over the authenticity of statistical claims, the nativists changed the terms of the debate; everyone is busy disproving CIS’s report and legitimating it in the process. Anti-immigrant groups have thereby distracted the public from the more basic political issue, that is, that immigrants are not to blame for unemployment levels.
Therefore, Rick Perry’s immigration stance isn’t the problem and, frankly, shouldn’t be much of a talking point. He’s another moderate candidate with another moderate policy. While CIS and its ilk can make inflammatory claims, its interests are becoming better represented in mainstream forums like the presidential debates. All the while, they move the discussion onto an increasingly nativist grounding.