By Jason McLure
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Rick Perry vowed to deport all illegal immigrants detained in the country if elected president as he sought on Tuesday to burnish his conservative credentials on immigration ahead of the 2012 Republican contest.
The Texas governor has faced criticism from Republican rivals like Mitt Romney for being "soft" on illegal immigrants, because those who live in Texas can attend state universities at the same cost as other Texas residents.
Perry, who made the remarks while campaigning in New Hampshire with a controversial Arizona sheriff, said that if elected he would immediately order the deportation of any illegal immigrant detained in the United States.
"My policy will be to detain and deport every illegal alien who is apprehended in this country," Perry said. "And we'll do it with an expedited hearing process so that millions of illegal aliens are not released into the general population with some hearing date down the road."
Non-violent illegal immigrants who are arrested are currently allowed to stay in the country while awaiting deportation hearings in immigration courts.
Perry was briefly among the front-runners for the Republican primary nomination after entering the race in August, but has been hit by attacks on his immigration views and stumbled in a series of poor debate performances.
Recent polls show Perry running in fourth or fifth place among Republicans nationally, and about sixth in the relatively moderate state of New Hampshire.
But ongoing problems with sexual misconduct accusations against rival Republican Herman Cain could arguably encourage some conservative voters to take a second look at Perry.
Perry's endorsement by Joe Arpaio, who claims to be "America's toughest sheriff," was designed to rebut criticism of his immigration policies.
Arpaio has drawn national attention for creating all-volunteer armed posses to sweep for illegal immigrants in Arizona's Maricopa County and for policies such as making prison inmates wear pink underwear.
The United States has an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of them originally from Mexico and Latin America, among a total population of about 308 million people.
"I have been a law and order governor and I intend to be a law and order president," Perry said. "That border with Mexico, it will be secure. It will be shut down within 12 months of me taking the oath of office."
Research by the Pew Hispanic Center indicates that the population of undocumented immigrants has fallen by about 1 million since 2007. The stalled U.S. economy led to a net outflow of undocumented Mexican immigrants last year, according to research from the group.
(Reporting by Jason McLure, editing by Ros Krasny and Cynthia Johnston)