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On Immigration Reform, GOP Candidates Should Ask “What Would Reagan Do?”

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Ronald ReaganThe latest Republican presidential debate, being held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, will undoubtedly feature endless paeans from the candidates to our nation’s 40th President.  Yet on the issue of immigration, the Republican 2012 field has a lot to learn from the Gipper.

In matters of tone and substance, today’s Republican Party has moved far to the right of President Reagan, who promoted both an immigration policy approach and a vision for our society where immigrants were made to feel welcome.  Upon signing the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted residency to nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, President Reagan said:

The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society.

In his farewell address to the nation, President Reagan referred back to his vision for America as a “shining city upon a hill.” He said “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

These days, GOP politicians fall in one of two camps on the immigration issue, and neither of them is in line with the Reagan approach.  The more strident, led by Republicans in Congress like Rep. Lamar Smith, want to force the mass deportation of 11 million men, women, and children currently in our country without papers.  The supposedly more “moderate” voices call for securing the border “first,” and waiting to deal with other aspects of reform “later.”  Who knows when these politicians will be ready to declare the border secure and move on to other aspects of reform?  My guess is pretty much never – and definitely not while President Obama is in charge.

These positions are a far cry from the centrist, problem-solving approach that President Reagan adopted.  Here’s some free political advice to the top-tier 2012 GOP candidates: if you want to give President Obama a real fight in the general election, go back to your Reagan roots on immigration.  How Republicans handle immigration may well determine whether they get to see the inside of the White House again for a long, long time.  

Matthew Dowd, an advisor and strategist to President George W. Bush, gets it.  In reference to Latino voters, his Party’s brand image and Presidential races, he argues that if Republicans “don’t get back to a place where they are getting roughly 40 percent net of the Hispanic vote, there is no way they can ever win.”  In fact, George W. Bush won 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and went on to win the election.  John McCain won 31% of the Hispanic vote in 2008 and lost.

Dick Armey recently said, “Who in the Republican Party was the genius that said that now that we have identified the fastest-growing demographic in America, let’s go out and alienate it?”  It says something about the state of the Republican Party when Dick Armey, who created Freedom Works, comes across as a voice of reason.

Anti-immigrant politicians are trying to sell GOP leadership on the fantasy that they can appeal to Latino voters simply by changing their tone on immigration, and not actually changing their positions.  They are wrong.  Polling around the November 2010 elections and beyond has consistently shown immigration to be a top, motivating issue for the electorate.  A majority of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented, and they refuse to vote for candidates who advocate the forced removal of 11 million undocumented immigrants.  Republicans are at a sizable disadvantage with this electorate, in large part because of their stance on immigration.  In fact, the best way to ensure President Obama’s re-election is for Republican candidates to continue to embrace the Party’s hard-line, enforcement-only agenda.  

Today, America’s Voice is releasing an updated version of our report on the 2012 GOP presidential field, “Why Do Elephants Put Their Heads in the Sand?  We look at the immigration positions of all the major candidates, and analyze the politics of immigration for the GOP.  Here are some of the highlights:

Since his entry into the field, Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) has rocketed to the top of the primary polls, and some analysts have declared that he has a “moderate” position on immigration.  But the facts do not bear this out; Perry’s immigration positions are a far cry from the centrist policies of President Reagan.  For example, while he signed and still supports a Texas-specific version of the DREAM Act so that young people brought here illegally by their parents can go to college, Perry objects to the federal DREAM Act which would allow them to work legally after graduating.  He wants to send 4,500 more agents to the border, pushed hard this year to try to pass an Arizona-style enforcement bill in Texas, and even reached out to the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio for immigration advice.  Hardly a Reagan-like approach.        

Still, sensing an opening with the GOP’s anti-immigrant bloc last week, Mitt Romney attacked Perry over the DREAM Act – without naming Perry. At a gathering of Hispanic Republican legislators, Romney noted that he vetoed an in-state DREAM Act while he was the Governor of Massachusetts.  As the Washington Post editorial board pointed out, this is a curious political strategy for someone with an eye toward the general election, where Latino voters will play a huge role in states like Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada:

It seems daft for the candidate seeking to position himself as the Republican most likely to win a general election to go out of his way to alienate Hispanics, when his party is already doing a pretty good job of that.

It seems daft to us too.

For her part, Michele Bachmann is leaning into another one of the signature issues of the extreme right: pledging to end “birthright citizenship” for children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents.  In South Carolina last month, Bachmann again endorsed the radical plan to undo the 14th Amendment via legislation, which will have the disturbing consequences of creating stateless children and requiring pregnant women to carry proof of citizenship into the delivery room.  Bachmann has supported similar legislation in Congress over the years.

Here’s some more free advice for Romney, Perry, Bachmann, and anyone else in the GOP primary field who wants to survive a general election.  Going after babies and college bound-young people, out of concern for “illegal immigration,” is just plain mean.  And it’s a stupid strategy.  Earlier this year, Matt Barreto from Latino Decisions noted that, “Looking to 2012, it is clear that immigration and the DREAM Act will still be on the minds of Latino voters.” Latino Decisions polling found that even among GOP-leaning Latinos, there’s strong support for DREAM. 

Romney may be looking for a way to distinguish himself from Perry, and Bachmann may be looking for headlines.  But by picking on DREAM Act students and babies, they are treading in dangerous waters.  I suspect Ronald Reagan would agree.  

Cross-Posted at Huffington Post and Daily Kos.