AUSTIN, Texas — As Gov. Rick Perry travels the nation defending Texas' decade-old law allowing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, some conservatives back home are mobilizing a repeal effort.
Confronted by a New Hampshire voter at a town hall meeting Saturday who declared the tuition policy doesn't make sense, Perry stood steadfastly by the law, saying he and Texas legislators passed it in 2001 because it was in the state's best interests.
Perry, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has come under fire from rivals for supporting the law. Perry has repeatedly argued that the statute has given thousands of additional students a shot at higher education.
HB1403 sailed to final approval with only four dissenting votes in the 2001 Legislature, and subsequent efforts to strike it from the books have gone nowhere.
But the current political backlash has strengthened the resolve of the law's opponents in Texas, who say they plan to wage a vigorous effort to repeal it when the Legislature meets again in 2013. Conversely, supporters are preparing to circle the wagons to protect the measure.
"I'm afraid that the mood of the country and the state is completely headed in the wrong direction, and we will have to work really hard to defend this legislation next time," said Democratic state Rep. Lon Burnam, who was a co-author of the 2001 law.
Republican State Rep. Bill Zedler said he wants to reintroduce legislation to repeal the law. Zedler pushed a repeal measure during this year's legislative session, but his bill died in the House without a hearing.
Before the law became entangled in presidential politics, said Zedler, "a lot of people didn't realize" that illegal immigrants could get in-state tuition in Texas. "Now you have a good percent of Texans realizing that, and there is going to be more of a push" to kill the statute, he said.
Ken Emanuelson, founder of the Dallas Tea Party, said the question of where candidates stand on the tuition bill could be one of the tests for getting tea party support in next year's legislative races.
"I expect that will be a question that is going to be asked to a lot of ... candidates in this upcoming primary season," said Emanuelson, who contends that the law "serves as a magnet that further exacerbates" illegal immigration.
Conservative grassroots voting power was evident in the 2010 elections when Republicans seized a two-thirds majority in the state House and continued their hold on the state Senate. All House and Senate seats are up for election next year under new redistricting maps being challenged in the courts.
Perry's opponents in the presidential race have cited his support of the in-state tuition law in an attempt to portray the Texas governor as being weak on illegal immigration.
Mitt Romney, Perry's principal rival who vetoed a similar bill when he was governor of Massachusetts, has presented himself as the tougher of the two candidates when it comes to enforcing illegal immigration.
Perry has never wavered in his support of the law, although he backed away from his remark that opponents of the law are heartless, saying the statement was "inappropriate."
Perry has also repeatedly pointed to the state's multi-agency law enforcement operation along the border, saying that none of his rivals can match his expertise on border enforcement. But the in-state tuition issue has seemingly cost him support among tea party activists and other conservative voters who consider illegal immigration one of the nation's top problems.
Perry, who was also hurt from a poor performance in the last debate, dropped 10 points in a Fox News poll last week, falling below Romney for the first time in weeks.
The issue took another turn last week when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the state Senate's presiding officer and a U.S. Senate candidate, came out in opposition to the in-state tuition bill. Dewhurst, who became the state's No. 2 official in 2003, told a TV interviewer that he thought the bill was unfair to U.S. citizens and said "I would not have signed that law."
Only one House member and three senators opposed the bill when it was en route to becoming the first state law in the country to allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. Several other states have since enacted their own versions of the Texas law.
The bill was aimed primarily at helping children of illegal immigrants who came into the United States with their families, attended public school and largely assimilated into U.S. society. Students are required to be in Texas for at least three years, graduate from high school and commit to getting on track to becoming a legal resident.
About 16,400 illegal immigrant students received in-state tuition in fiscal 2010, about 1 percent of the total enrollment, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Of those, about 12,000 were enrolled in community colleges and the remainder attended four-year universities or health-related institutions.
In-state students pay about $7,200 in tuition and fees, compared to about $17,000 for out-of state residents. The difference is less dramatic for community colleges — about $2,200 for in-state students and $4,800 for out-of-state.
Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the Senate sponsor of HB1403, said the bill was passed with overwhelming support from the state's business community and grew out of concerns that many students were deprived of a potential college education because of the steep tuition rates for out-of-state residents.
Before the law, illegal immigrants were considered international students and therefore were required to pay out-of-state tuition.
"It's worked well in Texas," she said. "I think it's become a national issue because immigration is kind of the flavor of this election cycle."
(Dave Montgomery is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the latest politics news at McClatchy's Planet Washington