Commentary: Texas has dealt well with failed immigration policy

Texas Gov. Rick Perry missed his teachable moment. But he shouldn’t fret. He’ll get another shot at it.

Perry chose a defensive posture when fellow GOP presidential candidates attacked over Texas’s college in-state tuition option for children whose parents hauled them to this country illegally.

At a recent debate, Perry let others distort the issue. He flubbed it, and his opponents smelled blood in the water.

He may not realize it yet, but Perry’s stumble harms more than just his own quest for the GOP presidential nomination.

It’s imperative that Perry, who holds sway with conservatives, gets this right. He’s being coached now. A lot of voices, from The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to Mike Huckabee, are offering Perry advice on how to better explain his state’s rational immigration positions.

I hope he’s listening. Perry’s informed, pragmatic approach to the education of immigrants is rare these days among Republicans.

States are enacting measures targeting those least responsible for the nation’s immigration quandaries: children. And they are threatening the one thing beyond food, shelter and medical care that every child deserves: an education.

Consider Alabama. Among the provisions of a new law a federal judge declined to enter a preliminary injunction against: Public schools are to verify the legal status of students they enroll and that of their parents. They aren’t to deny them entry into classrooms, but you can bet the effect will be chilling on enrollments. Which is exactly what the zealots are hoping for.

Maybe a little fresh air is what they need to clear their heads. People who support such punitive measures on children, including Alabama’s governor, ought to spend a few days doing the work that isn’t getting done around the state as the parents of those children, migrant laborers (some legal), have been scared off.

Alabama’s agriculture commissioner has been telling horror stories of rotting crops in the fields. Unemployed native-born workers don’t flock to fill vacancies in the fields.

Explaining these economic realities is exactly where Perry could have an impact.

The real problem is that we don’t have workable system to control who migrates, and for how long, especially for low-wage laborers.

As a Wall Street Journal editorial addressing Perry’s gaffes pointedly argued: “Under our current system, it is nearly impossible for a typical Mexican to migrate to the U.S. legally within his lifetime. If the U.S. supplied enough work visas to meet demand, fewer migrants would have reason to enter illegally, and border resources could focus on genuine threats.”

Bravo. This basic explanation of how the nation came to have 11 million undocumented immigrants, including their children, is suspiciously missing from public discussion.

Denying innocent children an education isn’t going to fix the underlying problem, which is economic in nature.

Texas, as a border state, knows that well. The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that undocumented children have a right to a public K-12 education, originated in Texas. And Texas was the first state to address what happens to those students after high school.

What Perry failed to explain is that, in order to qualify for in-state tuition at public colleges and universities, the students in question have to graduate from Texas high schools, to have lived in the state for at least three years and be seeking legal status.

There’s no free handout. They and their families have been paying state taxes for years.

Texas is dealing pragmatically and humanely with a consequence of failed federal immigration policy.

Are you listening Mitt Romney? If the GOP nominates and the nation elects to the White House, a candidate who misunderstands these basic facts, the likelihood of ever substantially addressing immigration is nil.

And the backward tactics of Alabama will likely spread to other states.