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At Ronald Reagan Library, GOP Candidates Reject Ronald Reagan's Immigration Vision

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Ronald Reagan pictured against Republican debate imagery | Illustration: Lex Villena; Brian Cahn/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom

When Republican presidential candidates spoke about immigration and the border during last night’s debate, they devoted little time to the very real ways immigrants benefit the country. Instead, they leaned into catastrophic rhetoric and harsh proposals.

“Every county in America is now a border county,” claimed Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.). “Right now, Americans are not safe,” said former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley during remarks about border crossings, proposing a “catch and deport” policy. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy went so far as to suggest a likely unconstitutional plan to end “birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants” here. “We want you here in this country to fill the 6 million vacant jobs we have, but only if you come here to follow the law,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, failing to explain just how difficult it is for willing workers to immigrate here legally. Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence both nodded to the need to fix the broken immigration system, but they never got more specific than that.

The overarching tone on the issue was disappointing—and it was downright contradictory, given the debate venue. Though the candidates spoke from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, their rhetoric had little in common with the way the 40th president talked about immigration.

“Unique among nations, we draw our people—our strength—from every country and every corner of the world,” said Reagan, calling the ability to attract newcomers “one of the most important sources of America’s greatness.” Immigrants help ensure that the U.S. remains “a nation forever young, forever bursting with energy and new ideas, and always on the cutting edge, always leading the world to the next frontier,” he continued. “If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

It was the last speech he delivered as president and it was, as some have called it, a “love letter to immigrants.” And though he made no distinction between “legal” and “illegal,” Reagan was broadly willing to treat immigrants with humanity.

“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit?” he said during the 1980 Republican primary debate. Four years later, during a presidential debate with Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, he explained, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” Reagan would follow through on that statement by signing an amnesty bill into law in 1986. Any immigrant who entered the U.S. prior to 1982 was made eligible for a pathway to citizenship, ultimately extending amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants.

“The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows,” Reagan said on the day he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). “Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

The IRCA had its carrots and its sticks: It granted amnesty, but it was also designed to penalize employers for hiring undocumented immigrants. The law “was largely considered unsuccessful because the strict sanctions on employers were stripped out of the bill for passage,” noted NPR in 2010. “The law also didn’t include a mechanism to allow for the legal entry of low-skilled foreign workers,” noted The Arizona Republic‘s Dan Nowicki in 2018, “so when the U.S. economy boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s, the labor demands were met by new undocumented immigrants.”

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the IRCA and its intentions. Failing to establish a generous legal pathway for workers was a huge mistake. Still, the law provides important insight into Reagan’s willingness to dignify both legal and illegal immigrants, and it helps highlight just how far the modern GOP is from his stance.

It’s now more politically expedient for Republican candidates to call for mass deportations than to push for specific, meaningful immigration reform or talk as glowingly about immigrants as Reagan did in the 1980s. That’s a shame—and as Reagan warned in that final speech, “our leadership in the world” could “soon be lost” because of it.

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