"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally."
That was Ronald Reagan speaking during his 1984 reelection campaign. After that election, he stuck to his guns, signing an immigration reform law that allowed illegal immigrants to apply for residency if they could prove they'd lived in the country for five years, held jobs and committed no crimes. The law also called for tougher border enforcement, but its primary effect was to provide 3 million people with a path to legalization, and many eventually became citizens.
Reagan would have been pilloried if he were running for his party's presidential nomination today.
Recent weeks have seen a furious battle among the GOP candidates over who can take the hardest line on immigration. It began in September, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for having granted in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants in Texas. Then, last month, Mr. Romney attacked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over his support for a plan that would grant temporary work permits — but not a path to citizenship — to illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States for 25 years.
Rep. Michele Bachmann jumped into the fray, promising that, if elected, she would try to deport every one of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Mr. Perry, still smarting from his college-tuition gaffe, said he'd seek more deportations too, as did former Sen. Rick Santorum, who added: "I don't like to break up families, but … we're not sending them to Siberia. They're going to Mexico, which is a great country, a nice country." And Mr. Gingrich, though he didn't walk back from his once-conventional, now-bold proposal for work permits, made it clear that he was talking only about immigrants with deep roots in their communities — church members, grandparents — and that he still favors a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border and vigorous enforcement of the law.
The spectacle has provided a perfect illustration of the perils of trying to debate national policy in a primary contest that focuses on a few conservative voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The candidates are jostling for the right edge of the platform, and they think that GOP primary voters, especially in Iowa and South Carolina, are very attentive to immigration.
One of Mr. Romney's first mailers in Iowa boiled down his pitch to this: "The strongest Republican to beat Barack Obama and end illegal immigration."
But there's a flaw in this approach. To begin with, it's not what American voters are asking for — not even the bulk of Republican voters.
A Fox News poll last year found that almost two-thirds of Republicans believe that "illegal immigrants who pay taxes and obey the law" should be given a chance to remain in the United States under some kind of legalization program. A majority also favored tougher enforcement of the law, but only one-third said they believed that deportation was the solution.
And, almost needless to say, a campaign that focuses on cracking down on illegal immigrants is a good way to alienate Latino voters, one of the fastest-growing parts of the electorate.
"Latinos feel as if they're being used as a political piñata," complained Hector Barajas, a GOP strategist in Sacramento who was Meg Whitman's spokesman in her 2010 campaign for governor.
"Obama says I'm with you but I'm not willing to do anything for you. The Republicans say we want to secure the border and enforce the law, but that's all they're saying. What happens after that? We never get to hear."
In Arizona, he warned, Democrats are registering thousands of new Latino voters in the wake of a controversial law that requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain while enforcing other laws, if the suspect appears to be a potential illegal immigrant.
"You're giving them something to fight for," he said. "Republicans should drop the subject [of immigration] and talk about jobs instead."
Latino support for President Barack Obama has remained solid, even though many Latino activists have been dissatisfied with his failure to advance immigration reform legislation. A 21-state Univision poll last month found that in a head-to-head matchup, Latinos favored Mr. Obama over Mr. Romney 67 percent to 24 percent, a bigger margin than Mr. Obama enjoyed over John McCain in 2008 (and a far cry from when George W. Bush won an estimated 44% of the Latino vote in 2004).
Asked how he would energize Latino voters in a year when Democrats fear that their supporters will suffer from an "enthusiasm gap," Mr. Obama said the Republicans are doing his work for him.
"We may just run clips of the Republican debates," he told Univision. "We won't even comment on them. We'll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo."
By the time the election rolls around in November, I'm betting the Republican candidate will sound more like the Mitt Romney of 2007. "The 12 million or so that are here illegally should be able to sign up for permanent residency or citizenship," Mr. Romney said then, "but they should not be given a special pathway, a special guarantee that all of them get to stay here."
There's a lot of electioneering to come between now and then, and a lot of time for the GOP to do itself more damage. But this is an issue on which most Republican voters are more sensible than their candidates.