Iowa: Perry faces immigration hurdles

September 27, 2011

By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Newton, Iowa— Less than two months into Rick Perry‘s presidential candidacy, a record on illegal immigration that served him well politically as a border-state governor is proving a tough sell with voters looking toward Iowa’s Republican caucuses this winter.

It came up unbidden in the crowd line of neighbors waiting recently for the Texas governor to drop by Uncle Nancy’s Coffeehouse in Newton, the former corporate home of the washing-machine giant Maytag.

“I’m not sure I like Perry’s approach to immigration,” said Doug Ringger, a retired Maytag marketing man. “That concerns me a little bit — or a lot. I haven’t heard him say we need to seal the borders.”

Iowa voters are not alone in expressing such concerns, though they might seem jarring in a state whose small towns and cornfields are hundreds of miles from the nation’s southern border. The state has faced little of the political turmoil over illegal immigration that has long been a staple of politics in California, Arizona, Texas and other places that are home to greater numbers of undocumented workers.

But the 2008 arrest of nearly 400 illegal immigrants at a meatpacking plant in Postville highlighted the arrival of undocumented workers in Iowa as never before. At the same time, the growth of Iowa’s Latino population has sparked discomfort among some of the white conservatives who dominate the Republican caucuses.

Though Iowa remains the sixth-whitest state in America, its Latino population has surged from 33,000 in 1990 to 152,000 last year, census figures show. Even in the absence of precise figures showing how many residents are undocumented, that cultural shift has helped turn illegal immigration into a key issue for Republican caucus voters, said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

“That presence, particularly with regard to very small-town rural Republicans who tend to think the country they know is disappearing, this becomes a problem for them,” Goldford said.

Hot buttons for Republicans in Iowa, as elsewhere, are Perry’s opposition to a border fence stretching from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico and his signing of a bill allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state tuition at public colleges in Texas. (He sparked additional anger by contending in last week’s debate that those who didn’t share his views on in-state tuition were heartless.)

Greeting Perry recently in the parking lot outside a restaurant in Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River, was a cluster of protesters waving signs assailing his immigration record. Ron Duncan, a retired Harrison County truck driver wearing a black Iowa Minuteman cap, carried a placard that read, “Gov. Perry — No in-state tuition for illegal aliens.”

“Perry is horrible,” Duncan, a leader of a local Tea Party Patriots group, said of the governor, who was one of the first politicians to embrace the “tea party” movement.

Perry did not mention immigration in his remarks to Republicans gathered across the parking lot on a patio outside Tish’s Restaurant. That is his typical practice: He rarely speaks about immigration unless questioned or confronted in a debate. But immigration was on the minds of many who came to hear him, even if they largely welcomed his folksy style, his tribute to moral values and his conservative fiscal rhetoric.

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