Ronald Reagan Had No Problem Saying the ‘A-Word’

Aug 16, 2012
10:06 pm

In 1980, both George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were asked a question about the influx of undocumented people in the United States and what would they do about this issue if these two Republican candidates become President.

Listen to what they had to say about it. Really listen to what they had to say.

Then in 1984, Reagan said this:

28 years later, there is now a different tone.

So yes, the Father of Modern American Conservatism was a driving force behind the comprehensive immigration reform movement. Of course, the new line of revisionist history is that Reagan admitted it was all a mistake, but a recent NPR piece reported a different perspective:

In his renewed push for an immigration overhaul this week, President Obama called for Republican support for a bill to address the growing population of illegal immigrants in the country. This time, however, Republicans know better than to tread near the politically toxic A-word.

Part of this aversion is due to what is widely seen as the failure of Reagan's 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. However, one of the lead authors of the bill says that unlike most immigration reform efforts of the past 20 years, amnesty wasn't the pitfall.

"We used the word 'legalization,' " former Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson tells NPR's Guy Raz. "And everybody fell asleep lightly for a while, and we were able to do legalization."

The law granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants, yet was largely considered unsuccessful because the strict sanctions on employers were stripped out of the bill for passage.

Simpson says the amnesty provision actually saved the act from being a total loss. "It's not perfect, but 2.9 million people came forward. If you can bring one person out of an exploited relationship, that's good enough for me."

Reagan And Amnesty

Nowadays, conservative commentators like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh often invoke the former president as a champion of the conservative agenda. Sean Hannity of Fox News even has a regular segment called "What Would Reagan Do?"

Simpson, however, sees a different person in the president he called a "dear friend."

Reagan "knew that it was not right for people to be abused," Simpson says. "Anybody who's here illegally is going to be abused in some way, either financially [or] physically. They have no rights."

Peter Robinson, a former Reagan speechwriter, agrees. "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."

The piece continues:

More than 20 years later, the Republican Party has changed its tune. President Obama's call for bipartisanship on the immigration issue was answered by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. A bipartisan effort would be possible, he said, if Obama "would take amnesty off the table and make a real commitment to border and interior security."

But Simpson, a fellow Republican who served in the Senate with McConnell from 1986 to 1997, says calling for tighter borders is a tried-and-true tactic of politicians unwilling to confront the realities of a growing illegal population.

"That's always the palliative that makes people feel good," he says. "You just say, 'Well, we're still dinkin' around with immigration, so since we can't seem to get anything done and our constituents are raising hell — how do we get re-elected?' Well, you just put some more money into the border."

Robinson says Reagan's own diaries show the president found the idea of a militantly staffed border fence difficult to take. In a private meeting with then-President Jose Lopez Portillo of Mexico in 1979, Reagan wrote that he hoped to discuss how the United States and Mexico could make the border "something other than the location for a fence."

Imagine if the GOP actually followed its King on this one. You can read and listen to the rest of the NPR piece here.