Rick Perry regrets calling GOP opponents heartless on immigration issue

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement during a debate, Sept. 22, 2011, in Orlando, Fla. Pool,AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday expressed regret for calling his GOP presidential opponents heartless for opposing in-state university tuition breaks for students whose parents are undocumented immigrants.

"I probably chose a poor word to explain that," Perry said in an interview with the conservative site Newsmax. "For people who don't want their state to be giving tuition to illegal aliens, illegal immigrants in this country, that's their call, and I respect that."

In 2001, Perry signed the Texas DREAM Act, which allows Texas students to take advantage of in-state tuition prices even if they lack legal status in the United States.

At a Republican presidential debate last week, Perry defended the policy. "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said. "We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society."

The remark was a prime example of the straight-talking style that has been central to Perry's appeal as a candidate. His Republican opponents, however, did not hesitate to pile on Perry for his stance. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie - who has repeatedly denied he is even running for president -- attacked Perry for the remarks, calling it "commonsense," rather than heartless, to deny in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants.

"I was probably a bit over-passionate by using that word, and it was inappropriate," Perry told Newsmax, though he continued to defend his policy decision, pointing out that the measure had near-universal support in the Texas legislature. He argued that the policy is more about education than immigration.

The real immigration policy that needs to be addressed, he said, is the federal government's failure to secure the southern border. He said his 10 years of experience as governor of Texas made him well-qualified to handle the issue.

"Nobody has dealt with this issue more than I have," he said.

Perry's opponents have also used his opposition to a border fence as fodder for the charge that he's "soft" on immigration, but Perry said, "We have to live with reality."

A border fence would be costly, ineffective and would trample on private property rights, he said. Instead, the governor said strategically-placed fences should be combined with more aerial observation and agents at the border.

"Having an obstacle without observation is no obstacle at all," he said. "So just the idea of building a fence and saying, 'That will take care of it, let's just build a fence,' has never worked in the history of mankind."

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