Made by History

How Republicans Learned to Love Tough Immigration Rhetoric

8 minute read

When a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit hears arguments on Wednesday on whether to block a Texas law that allows police officers to arrest suspected undocumented immigrants, it will be just the latest chapter in the state’s wrangling with the federal government over immigration and border policy. In February, Republican governors from around the country converged on the Texas border with Mexico to protest the Biden Administration’s purportedly lackadaisical border policies and to flex their conservative muscles in front of a national audience. Texas Governor Greg Abbott rolled out the red carpet and welcomed their support for his crusade against the federal government, which has even included defying a Supreme Court edict to remove razor wire from areas along the border.

The gathering was both eerily similar to—and distinctly different from—a bipartisan meeting in 2005 in Texas that brought together governors concerned about violence at the border. There, governors Rick Perry (R-Tex.), Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) stood together to oppose the mistreatment of migrants, both documented and undocumented, and pledged to take more responsibility for border security. "One of the greatest challenges our nations face is cutting off the drug trade and ending the violence that it has brought to both sides of the border," Perry said.

Perry’s statement reflected the rather moderate line Republicans took on border security and immigration in those days. But times were already changing. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Republicans, especially in border states like Texas, recognized that hammering the federal government on security could be a major plus politically. Importantly, however, the tough rhetoric of Republicans like Perry was paired with moderate policy. Yet, increasingly, this combination did not go far enough for Republican base voters. This became evident when Perry ran for president in 2012, presaging the rise of Donald Trump, with his even harsher rhetoric and far more draconian policy.

Border state Republicans have a long history of assailing the federal government on many issues. 

And few states have more of a love-hate relationship with Washington, D.C., than Texas, especially over coastal land and borders. The agreement that brought Texas into the Union in 1845 permitted the state to keep all of its land, including setting the boundary three leagues (about 10 miles) from shore—which gave Texas roughly 2.5 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, during the first half of the 20th century, the federal government initiated several cases challenging Texas’s right to these lands. The “tidelands controversy” was so important that in 1952, conservative Democratic Governor Allan Shivers backed Republican Presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower, after the latter promised to support the state in the dispute (he followed through in 1953).

Shivers' decision split the Democratic Party into liberal and conservative wings. They’d remain in uneasy tension for decades, with the conservative wing often haranguing the federal government. Gradually, as Republicans became more viable in Texas politics, conservative Democratic began switching parties.

Read More: No, Texas Can't Secede, and the Border Fight Is About Politics More Than Policy

Perry epitomized this pattern. He joined the state legislature in 1984 as a conservative Democrat. In 1989, he switched parties, sensing that his brand of anti-federal power conservatism was now far more at home in the GOP. The following year, he became the first Republican to win the position of Agriculture Commissioner—often a stepping stone for ambitious politicians.

Once in statewide office, Perry capitalized on the value of railing against federal intrusion into state affairs in a state rapidly swinging to the right. The Agriculture Commissioner opposed federal regulations advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that they burdened farmers, and assailed the water use restrictions of the federal Endangered Species Act in parched central Texas. This was largely rhetoric—the Agriculture Secretary had few tools to fight back—but the stage was set for conflict.

One issue where Perry didn’t reflexively attack the federal government, however, was immigration and the border. His new party was divided on the topic and he recognized the need to court Latinos—soon to be a massive voting bloc in Texas. On one side of the GOP stood conservatives like former President Ronald Reagan who had suggested, "Rather than talking about putting up a fence...Why don't we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?" The other side included hardliner conservatives like Pat Buchanan, who won roughly a quarter of the votes in the Republican Presidential primary in 1992 with his right-wing populist rhetoric, including proposals to increase the Border Patrol and build “structures” necessary to secure the border.

Texas Republicans, including Perry and George W. Bush, who captured the governorship in 1994, tended to side with Reagan’s approach. Once Bush left for the White House in 2001, Perry continued the former governor’s moderate immigration policy by signing the Texas Dream Act, which provided the state’s eligible undocumented immigrants with access to in-state tuition and state financial aid. Even at the 2005 border governor meeting, Perry objected to congressional funding for 700 miles of border fencing, saying it would be ineffective. "If you build a 30-foot wall or fence, the 32-foot-ladder business is going to get real good," he said.

But nationally, Buchanan’s wing of the GOP was beginning to wrest control of the party. In 2006, House Republicans—in opposition to President Bush’s calls for a balanced approach to immigration—took a more punitive stance, introducing legislation to make it a felony to be in the country illegally.

The actions of Bush and Perry in 2006 epitomized the shift. Bush bowed to political reality and announced “Operation Jump Start,” which deployed National Guard troops to the border to help stop illegal immigration. Perry praised his former running mate, but reflecting the shift in gravity on the issue, he also made clear that, “Texas cannot wait for the federal government to implement needed border security measures.” He increased state law enforcement presence along the border and provided new investigative tools.

The election of Barack Obama cemented opposition to Washington as a key wedge issue for Republicans like Perry. The Texas governor sensed an opportunity to assail the federal government, not only for failing to secure the border, but also for violating states’ rights by taking solutions out of their hands.

Read More: Trump Is Returning to the U.S.-Mexico Border as He Lays Out Immigration Proposals

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Even so, Perry’s anti-federal government rhetoric on immigration issues was more temperate than his screeds on other issues like taxes, reflecting the old moderate approach to the issue. At one 2009 anti-tax rally, for example, Perry vaguely suggested that secession might be an option if Washington continued to “thumb their nose at the American people.” 

But Perry grasped that GOP politics had changed and he had to move rightward on immigration to satisfy the GOP base. Of Obama, he said in 2014, “I don’t believe he particularly cares whether or not the border of the United States is secure,” then declined an offer to meet the President for what the governor termed “a quick handshake on the tarmac,” instead suggesting the pair hold a “substantive meeting.” (In fact, they did meet, with a grim-faced Perry expressing his distrust on his face.) In addition to hammering Obama, Perry secured state and federal funding for “Operation Rio Grande,” a wide-ranging series of border security operations that went beyond what the federal government was doing.

Politically, Perry’s newly tough actions and harsh attacks on the Obama administration worked like a charm. Texas voters rejected cuts to border security spending during the Great Recession and a supermajority approved of tightening U.S. border security by 2013.

Yet, Perry never fully renounced the more compassionate stance toward undocumented immigrations that had once been a staple of Texas Republican politics. On a presidential debate stage in 2011, he said people who opposed in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants have “no heart.” This damaged Perry’s candidacy and foreshadowed what was to come.

Four years later, as Donald Trump rose to prominence with tough immigration rhetoric and promises of draconian action, it became clear how out of step Perry was on the issue. He shouldn’t have been surprised given that he, along with other border governors and Texas politicians were the first to uncover the basic formula that Trump perfected for capturing the hearts and minds of GOP voters. Assailing the federal government on immigration is political gold for Republicans—as Trump is proving once again in 2024 with his campaign promises.

Brandon Rottinghaus is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Houston. His forthcoming book, publishing in May, is Rick Perry: A Political Life, and he is also the author of Inside Texas Politics, Current Debates in the Lone Star State, and Inside American Government. He is the cohost of Party Politics, a TV8 show, a radio program on KUHF, and a podcast on Houston Public Media.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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