When Republicans Tried to Look Soft on Immigration (VIDEO)

Sep 19, 2015
12:00 PM
Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States (Edalisse Hirst/Flickr)

Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States (Edalisse Hirst/Flickr)

“The Gipper” wouldn’t stand a chance in 2016. Neither would Lincoln, for that matter, or Eisenhower, or Nixon.

When the “Party of Lincoln” was actually the party of Lincoln, it pushed for radically progressive reforms, such as the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments which ended slavery and (tried to) give all men equal rights as citizens. Today’s Republicans —specifically Trump, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Texas Senator Ted Cruz — want to eliminate the fundamental principle of the 14th Amendment: birthright citizenship.

Nearly a century later, President Eisenhower undertook one of the largest public works projects known to man and left office railing against the military-industrial complex. The present-day GOP is adamantly opposed to increases in government spending, unless said increases are at the defense department.

Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order, which today’s Republican-controlled Congress would consider both treasonous and an impeachable offense.

And then there’s the time Reagan and George H. W. Bush tried to make the other seem tougher on immigration in order to snatch the 1980 nomination.

“I’d like to see something done about the illegal alien problem that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs that that problem wouldn’t come up,” Bush, then known mostly as the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, said at a candidates’ forum in April 1980.

He went on to say:

The problem has to be solved, because as we have kind of made illegal some kinds of labor that I’d like to see legal, we’re doing two things: we’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people who are in violation of the law; and secondly we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico. … I don’t want to see a whole — if they’re living here — … think of six- and eight-year-old kids — one, totally uneducated — and made to feel like they’re living withoutside [sic] the law. Let’s address ourselves to the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people. Part of my family is a Mexican [sic].

Notwithstanding the syntax issues, you’re unlikely to hear a current Republican candidate say anything remotely as reasonable and compassionate — unless it’s from grandson Jeb, of course, whose wife and kids are the part of the Bush clan that grandpa George was referring to. Not only did Jeb marry a Mexican and have Mexican kids, he also speaks Spanish like a Mexican (at least as much as Wagner Moura speaks like a Colombian).

Back in 1980, after Herbert Walker gave his spiel about the need for a humane immigration system — to genuine applause — it was Ronnie’s turn:

I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors — particularly our neighbor to the south — should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had. And I think we haven’t been sensitive enough to our size and our power. They have a problem of 40 to 50 percent unemployment. Now, this cannot continue without the possibility arising — with regard to the other country that we talked about, with Cuba and what it is stirring up — of the possibility of trouble below the border, and we can have a very hostile and strange neighbor on our border. Rather than … talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they wanna go back, they can go back and they can cross.  Open the border both ways by understanding their problems. This is the only safety valve right now they have — with that unemployment — that probably keeps the lid from blowing off down there.

Reagan’s position on immigration is much closer to what we’re used to seeing from Republican candidates, to be sure. The former actor and governor of California hoped that by relieving Mexico’s unemployment by offering Mexicans the jobs their American cousins didn’t want, the United States could keep a dangerous neighbor from becoming even more so. (Never mind that, historically speaking, the United States has posed a much greater threat to the political and economic security of Mexico than vice versa. But I digress.)

I’m by far not the first person to recognize how much the GOP has shifted on immigration since the days of the Reagan administration. In fact an ad by the National Immigration Forum Action Fund aired during Wednesday’s Republican debate — at the Reagan presidential library, of all places — in which the former president’s farewell address is compared to the current rhetoric of his fellow party members.

As Reagan said in 1989:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life … In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

This sounds as pro-immigrant as anything candidate Obama promised back in 2008, and more socialist than Bernie Sanders’s position — which rather than uniting the workers of the world against the one percent, looks to unite American workers against exploited immigrant labor. Politics in America have certainly come a long way if it can be said of Reagan that his outlook was as progressive as the black president’s and more socialist than the socialist senator’s.

As for Republicans, the list of past presidents whose memory they can securely hitch their party to is increasingly shrinking. They haven’t been the party of Lincoln since the Thirties and, of the two, only the Dems can be called the party of Eisenhower and Nixon. (Nixon also reestablished relations with Communist China.)

If the GOP maintains its antipathy toward immigrants and taxes — which Reagan cut and then raised — Republicans will have to settle for being the party of whichever candidate is most popular among their base.

For the foreseeable future, they’re the party of Trump.

h/t @angshah in the Global Nation Exchange


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.