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Governor Rick Perry’s gaffes and the heart and soul of immigration in the US

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Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry (AP Photo/Joe Burbank, Pool)
So Texas Governor Rick Perry went ahead and voiced support for the radial notion that the children of illegal immigrants should be able to pay in-state tuition costs when they attend college.

Furthermore, Perry, running for the GOP nod for the presidency in 2012, suggested that since immigrants tend not to hail from the elite classes, making sure they have access to college might actually pay off for America in the long run.

You know what this means. It may be time to serve up the Perry toast. He may well be done.

Ever since Perry made these comments at a GOP debate late last week, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and other Republicans desperate to make their anti-immigration sentiments clear have been bashing Perry as “soft on immigration” (Rick Santorum’s actual words).

Can Perry survive his admission that, sometimes, you have to “have a heart” when it comes to certain vulnerable citizens?  It is amazing, in a race filled with so-called Christians, that this comment would actually cause a stir.

It is also interesting that this immigration scuffle came the same week that venerable, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Oscar Handlin passed away, at the age of 95.

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Handlin’s most famous work was written way back in the early 1950s.  Entitled The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that made the American People, Handlin changed the way we think about immigrants and immigration.  He did so at a time of hyper-American patriotism, and, hence, disinterest in all things “ethnic.”

Handlin himself was a wise college investment.  He was one of four sons of an immigrant grocer from Russia.  And yet he went on to become a Harvard professor, and turned to the Irish for his first book about Boston’s immigrants.

But it was in The Uprooted that he did something quite radical.  He looked at the Irish as well as the other major American immigrant groups and argued that, as The New York Times put it, “Immigration -- more than the frontier experience, or any other episode in its past -- was the continuing, defining event of American history.”

Imagine saying this in 1950s America. There had not yet been a Catholic in the White house. World War II had (supposedly) erased so many ethnic differences and immigration quotas from the 1920s had drastically reduced the number of foreign-born Americans.

In fact, in the early 1950s, venerable Ellis Island was shuttered with very little fanfare, and many of its buildings were left to rot.

Handlin, though, captured the misery as well as the drama and triumph of the Irish and Germans and Italians and Slavs who emigrated to the U.S.  By implying that the journeys of these humble immigrants -- and not the struggles of the founding fathers or the cowboys in the west – is what “made the American people,” Handlin was doing quite a bold thing in early 1950s America.

This, after all, was an era when adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance passed for social reform.

Since the 1920s, Americans had proven themselves fed up with immigrants. If you want proof of this, check out Ken Burns’ new documentary of the Prohibition-era, set to air on PBS stations Sunday, October 2.

It is no accident that immigration restrictions and the prohibition of alcohol were passed within a few years of each other.  The anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan also rode to prominence once again in the twenties.

Middle American Protestants were fed up with what they viewed as the corrupt ethnic cities, with their exotic religions and old world vices.  Irish pubs and political machines, German radicals, Italian gangsters, all of these flamed fear of the big bad city.

It took 25 years for Oscar Handlin to weed through such stereotypes to find the poetry, the sadness, and the epic heroism, in the immigrant story.

And yet, the likes of Bachmann and Santorum believe that the way to the White House is to blast Perry (of all people) for charging in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.

The sad part is, such comments have consistently been met with lusty applause at Republican debates, with Bachmann calling for fences "on every mile, on every yard, on every foot" of the Texas-Mexico border.

Almost makes you glad you can still have drink.

Then again, that may change if any of these folks actually get into the Oval Office.
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