The Atlantic recently published an article by Adam Ozimek and Sean Rust entitled, “The Conservative Case for Immigration Reform”. This touched on one of the more fascinating issues related to the immigration debate. Namely, is immigration reform a Republican issue or a Democratic one? Given the shifting sand underneath the Republican party, this is an issue for which Republicans need to find an answer soon, lest they see national elections tilt to the left for the next generation.
As the writers of the Atlantic piece point out, there is an economic ideology-based path for the Republicans to get to immigration reform, without feeling as if they have “sold out” their base. Many core ideals of conservative thought, from the benefits of competition, to limited government, go to the heart of the immigration reform debate and create a path for Republican support of the issue.
However, intelligent ideological discussions, like those promoted by conservative thinkers such as Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley, have been replaced by talk radio shouting matches about immigrants sucking on the marrow of government entitlement programs. The lack of thoughtful debate within the Republican party on this issue is likely to paralyze the party, and cost it dearly for at least the next generation, on the national stage.
This is a mind-boggling potential outcome, one that gives the phrase “shooting yourself in the foot” a whole new meaning! After all, it was in 1986 that Ronald Reagan, the single biggest force in Republican politics and conservative ideology over the last half century (if not longer), signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, providing a path for legal status for 3 million illegal immigrants. It was Reagan, based not on his economic beliefs, but his moral beliefs and pragmatic and optimistic view of America, who in 1984 said: "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.”
According to Reagan’s friend, and one of the more colorful and pragmatic politicians in recent memory, Alan Simpson, the Republican Senator from Wyoming, Reagan acted not on economic impulses, but on moral grounds. According to Simpson, Reagan’s compassion for the plight of individual immigrants who were potentially being mistreated by businesses due to their status in the country was a major driver of his support for the immigration reform act.
Reagan famously referred to the United States as the “Shining City on a Hill” on many occasions, including his farewell speech (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=332QeTNmfh8). He viewed America as a beacon of hope and opportunity, toward which the citizens of the world could not help but be attracted. While law and order, and strong national defense were obviously core tenets of Reagan’s policies and Republican thought, so were the respect for the individual, freedom from mistreatment, the benefits of competition, and a government that got out of the way of its citizens. It was these genuine beliefs that resonated with individuals around the world, and brought them to the United States, not as Democrats but as Republicans.
Whether from Korea, Vietnam or Iran, or even Mexico, the immigrants of the 1980s often supported, and when allowed to vote as citizens, voted for the Republican party. For Reagan, not only was it the right thing to do, but it was also good politics. Let’s not forget that in 1984, Reagan defeated Walter Mondale by winning a staggering 49 states (with Mondale only winning his home state) and 59% of the popular vote (including 37% of the Latino vote), with the help of blue-collar workers dubbed the “Reagan Democrats”. In fact, it was this total destruction of the Democratic base by Reagan that brought about talk of the disintegration of the Democratic party, and allowed George HW Bush to ride Reagan’s coat-tail to win his election four years later.
As Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter once told NPR: "It was in Ronald Reagan's bones — it was part of his understanding of America — that the country was fundamentally open to those who wanted to join us here." If the “modern” Republican party wants to have any chance in the next few national elections, it would do well in reflecting upon the words and ideas of its adopted demigod.