As immigration roils GOP, it's worth asking: What would Reagan do?

As immigration roils GOP, it's worth asking: What would Reagan do?
On May 16, 1986, six months before he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, a relaxed President Reagan mugged for his audience at the White House News Photographers Assn.'s annual dinner in Washington. "I've been waiting for years to do this," he said. (Associated Press)

Watching the Republican implosion over President Obama's request for money to deal with Central American minors at our southern border in particular, and the party's inability to craft a rational approach to immigration in general, two words spring to mind: How unReaganesque.

What would our 40th president think of the disarray in which his beloved Republican Party finds itself? What, to quote many Republicans, would Reagan do?


Of course, we don't know what he would do. But we know what he did.

In 1986, President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (a.k.a. Simpson-Mazzoli), which allowed some 3 million immigrants who were in the country illegally to come out of the shadows and become full-fledged members of society.

"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," Reagan said in 1984 during a debate with his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale.

Was the law a success? Depends on your politics.

Those who believed it would put an end to illegal immigration were destined for disappointment. (There will never be an end to illegal immigration; the trick is to control it and to develop a rational policy around it.)

But for Latinos who were able to set themselves and loved ones on a path to citizenship, it was a stunning success. Many of those families have worshipful feelings about Reagan, even if they became Democrats after naturalization.

And this gets to the crux of the issue for so many conservatives who see the idea of amnesty or a path to legalization as tantamount to gifting the Democratic party with new voters.

But this is silly. Deep down, Republicans know there is a reason that Latino voters, who will constitute nearly 30% of the electorate by 2050, have been turned off. It's the GOP's harsh attitude towards immigration.

"If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States [i.e. self-deportation], they will not pay attention to our next sentence," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a deeply critical 2012 election postmortem. "It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies."

Latino voters certainly did not flock in big numbers to Republican candidates after Reagan signed the 1986 amnesty law. But, looking at Latino voting trends in presidential elections, it is also true that Latinos vote in larger numbers for Republicans who are sympathetic to their issues, or at least show a humane grasp of the impulse behind illegal immigration.

For instance, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush first ran for president in 1999, he telegraphed his empathy: "The first step, we've got to enforce the borders," he said. "But I understand family values don't stop at the Rio Grande River. And see, what I understand is, that when you're a man who got kids to feed, and you are making 50 cents and you can look up north and see the chance to make $50 and your kids are hungry, that you are going to come."

In 2000, Bush got nearly 35% of the Latino vote (compared with the 21% that GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole got in 1996), and nearly 44% in 2004.

Twelve years later, Mitt Romney undid any GOP inroads with Latinos when he talked up the idea of self-deportation. Ironically, he uttered the words while explaining why he was not in favor of ordering the federal authorities to "round up" immigrants for deportation.

"The answer," he said during a GOP debate in January 2012, "is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here."


The phrase was so damaging that nearly a year after the election, in August 2013, Priebus described it as "horrific."

And it hurt Romney, who received only 29% of the Latino vote (surprising, considering Romney's own father was born in Mexico in 1907).

"Hispanics are already Republican," Reagan used to say. "They just don't know it."

At this rate, they never will.

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