AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ U.S. Senate candidate David Dewhurst broke with Gov. Rick Perry this week by opposing in-state college tuition rates for children of illegal immigrants, a stance that prompted sharp criticism Tuesday from opponents who say the Republican lieutenant governor has been soft on the issue.
Dewhurst said he questioned the fairness of the 10-year-old Texas law.
“If we're not going to give fellow Americans who live in Louisiana or Oklahoma or New Mexico the ability to come into Texas and have in-state tuition and save, then is it fair to give that break to people who are not citizens here?'' Dewhurst said in a taping for a political show to be aired Sunday on Dallas' WFAA-TV. “So, I would not have signed that law.''
Perry, seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has held strong to his support of a 2001 law that Texas universities allow the children of illegal immigrants to pay discounted in-state tuition rates. He's been criticized by opponents in his own party for his position, but has pushed back hard against his rivals.
He argues that the students should be educated and not punished for the actions of their parents. To qualify for the reduced rate, children of illegal immigrants must have graduated from a Texas high school and have attended a Texas school for at least three years. The law also requires noncitizens to promise to apply for citizenship.
At a Republican debate last week, Perry said people who don't support education benefits for the children of illegal immigrants are heartless.
The legislation became law before Dewhurst became lieutenant governor in 2003. Since then, several legislative efforts to ban the practice have failed. Dewhurst's political rivals blamed him for not doing more to repeal the law as leader of the Texas Senate.
The Republican field to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, includes Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who both said they also oppose giving in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants.
“This is another Republican primary-year conversion by David Dewhurst,'' Cruz said. “He was for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants before he was against it.
“The next senator from Texas needs to be strong conservative who knows what he believes. I strongly oppose in-state tuition for illegal aliens, and categorically oppose amnesty or preferential treatment for illegal immigrants.''
Leppert called Dewhurst a career politician “failing to act when offered numerous opportunities to do so.''
A spokesman for Dewhurst's Senate campaign defended his legislative record.
“The overwhelming majority of the Senate favored the in-state tuition benefit, and Governor Perry has been firm in his support of the law,'' Dewhurst campaign spokesman Matt Hirsch said. “In light of Governor Perry's veto pen, it was clear that any attempt to repeal this benefit would not be signed into law. David focused instead on strengthening border security by devoting hundreds of millions toward enforcement, toughening laws against human trafficking and reducing voter fraud.''
The campaign declined to make him available for an interview with the AP.
Texas Railroad Commission chairwoman Elizabeth Ames Jones, also seeking the GOP nomination, supported the measure as a member of the Texas House when it was adopted. She voted in favor of granting in-state tuition rates to immigrant children.
“She agreed with a near unanimous Legislature that innocent young people should not be punished for graduating high school and being accepted to college,'' campaign spokesman Patrick Isenberg said. “But again, (she) believes this is an issue for the Texas Legislature, not the federal government.''
More than 16,000 children of illegal immigrants _ less than 1 percent of all students enrolled in Texas colleges and universities _ received the reduced rate last year, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Most of them attended community colleges, agency spokesman Dominic Chavez said.
Average savings range from almost $10,000 per academic year at four-year universities to less than $3,000 per year at community colleges.