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With all the high drama in Washington over immigration, you’d think the fate of undocumented workers represented a cataclysmic political divide — an ever-widening chasm that cannot be bridged. But it doesn’t.

Polls have long shown that a majority of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for those residents who entered the country illegally. But new data show that isn’t a matter of blue states overwhelming red ones. In fact, there isn’t a state in the union, from the bluest to the reddest, where a majority opposes a path to citizenship, provided certain criteria are met, for those without papers, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

The PRRI has used its data to create an American Values Atlas that shows the political inclinations of voters in each state. Unsurprisingly, some states are more immigrant friendly than others. In California, for example, 66 percent support a path to citizenship for the undocumented. In crimson-red Alabama, that drops to 56 percent. But that’s still a majority.

Yet, that very pathway is the mechanism that congressional Republicans have denounced as “amnesty” and refused to support. House Speaker John Boehner’s caucus has declined even to hold a vote on a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform.

Last fall, when President Obama took action through executive orders to grant temporary papers to as many as 4 million immigrants who met certain criteria, Republicans were apoplectic, claiming he was violating the Constitution and behaving like a despot. They have used every instrument at their disposal, from lawsuits to a pitched battle over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, to overturn the president’s orders.

Yet even the president’s executive action on immigration is not as unpopular as you might think. While his decision to use executive powers does not draw universal support, the aim of his action does. Three-quarters of Americans favor his policy of granting temporary documents to certain groups of immigrants. Said Robert Jones, CEO of the institute, “In today’s polarized politics, there are few major issues that attract this kind of bipartisan and cross-religious agreement.”

It makes you wonder: Who are those congressional Republicans listening to? Why are they opposing a policy with widespread support, even among GOP voters? (While more Democrats — 70 percent, according to the PRRI — support a path to citizenship, 51 percent of Republicans do, as well.)

The answer is depressing, if not surprising: The Republican Party continues to be held hostage by an aging and nativist minority of Tea Partiers who cannot stomach the idea of a browning America. (It isn’t considered polite to point this out, but more Tea Partiers hold views that show racial resentment than the public at large. As just one example, a 2010 New York Times poll showed Tea Partiers are “more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.”)

Among those who identify with the Tea Party, only 37 percent support a pathway to citizenship, according to the PRRI poll. Twenty-three percent would give them legal residency, while 37 percent want to deport each and every one of them, the poll said. (Never mind the logistical and financial nightmare that trying to round up every undocumented resident would represent.)

This is a huge problem for the GOP, as its strategists have pointed out for years. The party cannot afford to alienate Latinos, a growing bloc, as they have alienated black voters with their resistance to civil rights measures.

So rather than pander to an ultraconservative and xenophobic minority, the Republican Party’s leaders ought to educate them about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. As a practical matter, demographic change is already preordained: By the year 2042, according to the U.S. Census, whites will no longer constitute a majority, no matter what happens to undocumented immigrants. The GOP needs the allegiance of more voters of color if it is to regain the Oval Office.

But there is more at stake here than the survival of a political party. The nation also needs those immigrants; it needs their energy, their youth, their hopes and dreams. We ought to welcome them with open arms.

Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

Photo: Anuska Sampedro via Flickr

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