Let me begin by confessing my own prejudices on the matter of immigration: I never personally had any decision to make, but — to my great good luck — my ancestors made the bold decision to leave their homeland and be Americans. So I benefit, every day, from the precious and totally unearned gift of being an American citizen, not by any act on my part but solely by the accident of my birth.
A bare majority of Americans, according to the respected Pew Research Center, believe that "immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents," as opposed to their being "a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care." But there is a huge partisan divide on the value of immigrants to America. Whereas 57 percent of independent voters and 62 percent of Democrats think that immigrants strengthen the U.S., just 27 percent of Republican voters agree. In fact, according to the Pew survey, nearly 2 in 3 Republicans (63 percent) say they think immigrants today are a burden on this nation.
Numbers such as these may explain why so many of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates have abandoned their previously held position to permit the millions of people now in the country illegally to attain legal status or a pathway to citizenship. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker now opposes the path to citizenship he once supported, stating on Fox News Channel, "I don't believe in amnesty," adding: "My view has changed. I'm flat out saying it. Candidates can say that."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — who, in a 2007 Republican debate, forcefully defended, against Mitt Romney's condemnation of it, his state law that allowed the children of immigrants who came here illegally to apply for college scholarships ("in all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did") — this year seems only to emphasize getting tougher at the border. The same is true for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, in a 2011 debate, rebutted Romney and other Republicans who criticized the state law that permitted undocumented high-school graduates to pay the lower in-state tuition rate at Texas state colleges: "If 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." Now Perry wants you to know that he and Texas were tougher than anybody on securing the southern border.
A piece of advice for all these Republicans tap-dancing on immigration. Only one GOP candidate in the past 42 years has won more than 53.4 percent of the popular vote. In fact, this nominee won a landslide 58.8 percent. But more importantly, in the nationally televised presidential debate two weeks before Election Day, this GOP leader had this to say on the thorny immigration issue: "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally." Next, he forcefully blasted unscrupulous employers who "hire (these undocumented workers) at starvation wages and with none of the benefits that we think are normal and natural for workers in our country." Then he lamented, "And the individuals can't complain because of their illegal status."
Of course, Ronald Reagan was right. Immigrant workers, human beings without legal status or protection, are powerless, exploited and disposable. And that treatment is literally un-American. In 2012, the GOP lost the nonwhite vote by a 4-1 ratio. To have a fighting chance in November 2016, Republicans would be wise now to ask themselves on immigration: What would the Gipper do?
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.