09/25/2011 02:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2011

Oscar Handlin's Message to Republicans

How ironic that we should read about the death of Harvard historian Oscar Handlin at the same time that Republican presidential hopefuls were beating each other up over the issue of immigration.

Especially ironic, considering that the 95-year-old Handlin's best-known book, published more than a half century ago, "altered public perceptions about the role of immigration in the arc of American history," according to the New York Times.

Handlin's book was Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, a 1952 definitive study of the dramatic impact of immigration on American life that won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Handlin died at his home in Cambridge, Mass., just two days before Texas Gov. Rick Perry poked a rhetorical stick into a political hornets nest at latest GOP presidential debate in Orlando by defending a Texas law he helped pass in 2001 that allowed nearly 23,000 children of illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state tuition at the Lone Star State's colleges and universities.

It's unlikely that Perry or the other GOP other candidates are familiar with Handlin's ground-breaking book, or if they are, would buy his argument that immigration -- "more than the frontier experience, or any other episode in its past -- was the continuing, defining event of American history," as the Times obituary stated.

Perry's assertion that opponents of the Texas law don't "have a heart" disappointed and angered many grass roots conservatives and Tea Party activists who looked to him as their best hope for sending Barack Obama packing in 2012, and gave his GOP rivals a handy weapon to attack him.

"I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart," Mitt Romney, who vetoed a similar bill as governor of Massachusetts, declared afterwards. "It means that you have a heart and a brain."

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who lost her frontrunner status when Perry jumped into the race, called for building a fence "on every mile, on every yard, on every foot" of the 1,200-mile border between Texas and Mexico, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum drew cheers from the audience as he accused Perry of being "soft on immigration."

Perry's self-disclosure as a closet moderate on illegal immigration is understandable, given his state's large Hispanic population. But it clearly slowed his momentum and has put him on the defensive on what is likely to be one of the most divisive issues of the 2012 campaign.

Perry, who ridicules the notion of building a fence to keep illegal immigrants out of Texas as "idiocy," and who opposes requiring businesses to check their employees' immigration status, may be on to something that will win him support among moderate and independent voters, not to mention Hispanics.

As Charles C. Foster, chairman of immigration issues for the Greater Houston Partnership, a business coalition that helped Perry pass the 2001 law, told the Times, "The future of the business community is having a well-educated work force. We realize the trajectory of Texas is no longer going to be an industrial, steel-age state. It's going to be based on brain power."

Oscar Handlin didn't address that aspect of immigration in his book, but I have a feeling that he'd agree. As he wrote in the introduction to his book, "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history."

It's a lesson that Republicans other than Rick Perry appear likely to ignore, at their peril.