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Perry: Heartless comment on immigration was 'inappropriate'

By msnbc.com's Michael O'Brien

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday that he erred in last week's presidential debate, when he said that opponents of in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants were heartless.

Perry said it was "inappropriate" for him to make the comment, on which other Republican presidential candidates -- especially former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- have seized.

"I probably chose a poor word to explain that. For people who don't want their state to be giving tuition to illegal aliens, illegal immigrants in this country, that's their call; I respect that," Perry told the conservative magazine Newsmax in an interview posted online Thursday. "I was probably a bit over-passionate by using that word and it was inappropriate."

The interview seeks to temper the fallout from last Thursday's debate in Florida, when he defended in stark terms the legislation he'd approved as governor that granted in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

"[I]f you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society," Perry said.

Romney, the other front-running candidate for the GOP presidential candidate, has used that line as a cudgel against Perry since the debate.

"I fundamentally believe that it doesn’t make a lot of sense for American taxpayers to pay for the college education of illegal aliens particularly at a time when American taxpayers are having a hard time financing education for their own children," Romney said Tuesday on conservative talk radio.

Perry didn't back off his support for the underlying decision to support the in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. Ironically, Perry defended it on the same terms Romney has explained his state's healthcare plan; Perry said it was "a state's sovereign right" to decide how best to deal with issues of benefits for illegal immigrants.