This week, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry won the endorsement of America’s (self-proclaimed) “toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio. While Arpaio’s support might help Perry shore up the anti-immigrant portion of the Republican base, it will undoubtedly hurt him should he become the nominee.
The fact that Perry vyed for Arpaio’s support should come as little surprise. For months now, front-runner Mitt Romney has bullied Perry on his immigration record, criticizing the Texas Governor for his support of a plan to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students. Those hits, along with poor debate performances and an inability to sell his conservative credentials, have resulted in sliding poll numbers.
But Arpaio’s seal of approval is a mixed bag. His supporters claim that he is an effective law enforcement official with a no nonsense approach to ending the flow of illegal immigration. He undoubtedly plays well with the very small fraction of the Republican primary voters who rank immigration as a top issue. But given the questions Perry’s fellow contenders have succeeded in raising about his immigration record, at best all Arpaio’s support can do is nullify those concerns.
However, there is another side to Arpaio, one that could be toxic to Perry should he make it through the Republican primary: Arpaio is the national poster child for those who advocate anti-immigrant policies that slip the slope into anti-Latino policies. Arpaio’s detractors call him a nativist who has built a national platform for himself with shenanigans such as housing his inmates in tent cities and forcing them to wear pink underwear. Last year, the Department of Justice added merit to those claims when they filed a lawsuit against Arpaio because he refused to cooperate with an investigation into whether his Sheriff’s department is violating the rights of Hispanics.
On Tuesday, Perry ratcheted up his anti-immigration rhetoric and declared his support of a federal law to “to detain and to deport every illegal alien that we apprehend,” a direct contrast with the Obama Administration’s decision to prioritize violent and dangerous criminals over everyday moms and dads.
All this tough talk comports with much of Perry’s actual immigration record. Perry supports a guest worker program that explicitly denies immigrants a path to citizenship and effectively formalizes America’s underclass. Although he rejects the notion that building a fence will stop the flow of illegal immigration, he has positioned members of Texas’ national guard along the border to do the same. Perhaps most shockingly, he supports using American law enforcement, including our military, to stabilize the Mexican side of the border, even if the border is, in fact, safer than ever.
The difference is that in spite of his record, Perry hasn’t always talked tough. In fact, under that mimbo facade, part of his cunning is in an ability to appear as the most gentle and pro-immigrant Republican candidate, while simultaneously promoting policies that are impractical and tough on immigrants and their families. It is a skill that would have served him well in a general election where victory will require peeling off Hispanic voters from Obama while simultaneously maintaining the most radical and activated portions of the Republican vote.
With Arpaio’s endorsement, Perry is choosing which side of his mouth he’s talking out of. Unfortunately for him, it’s not his best side.