WSJ Editorial: Reagan on Immigration





One myth currently popular on the political right is that the immigration debate pits populist conservatives in the Ronald Reagan mold against Big Business "elites" who've hijacked the Republican Party. It's closer to the truth to say that what's really being hijacked here is the Gipper's reputation.

One of the Reagan Presidency's symbolic highlights was the July 3, 1986, celebration of a refurbished Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the gateway for immigrants a century ago. (Readers can find Reagan's entire speech that evening at www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches.) To Reagan, the conservative optimist, immigration was a vital part of his vision of this country as "a shining city upon a Hill," in the John Winthrop phrase he quoted so often. It was proof that America remained a land of opportunity, a nation built on the idea of liberty rather than on the "blood and soil" conservatism of Old Europe.

This view was apparent in Reagan's public statements well before he became President. In one of his radio addresses, in November 1977, he wondered about what he called "the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won't do? One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters." As a Californian, Reagan understood the role of immigrant labor in agriculture.

In 1980, according to the book "Reagan: His Life in Letters" (page 511), the then-Presidential candidate wrote to one supporter that "I believe we must resolve the problem at our southern border with full regard to the problems and needs of Mexico. I have suggested legalizing the entry of Mexican labor into this country on much the same basis you proposed, although I have not put it into the sense of restoring the bracero program." The bracero program was a guest-worker program similar to the one now being proposed by President Bush. It was killed in the mid-1960s, largely due to opposition from unions.

During the same campaign, circa December 1979, the Gipper responded to criticism from conservative columnist Holmes Alexander with the following: "Please believe me when I tell you the idea of a North American accord has been mine for many, many years. I have seen presidents, both Democrat and Republican, approach our neighbors with pre-concocted plans in which their only input is to vote 'yes.'

"Some months before I declared, I asked for a meeting and crossed the border to meet with the president of Mexico. I did not go with a plan. I went, as I said in my announcement address, to ask him his ideas -- how we could make the border something other than a locale for a nine-foot fence." So much for those conservatives who think the Gipper would have endorsed a 2,000-mile Tom Tancredo-Pat Buchanan wall.

It's true that in November 1986 Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which included more money for border police and employer sanctions. The Gipper was a practical politician who bowed that year to one of the periodic anti-immigration uprisings from the GOP's nativist wing. But even as he signed that bill, he also insisted on a provision for legalizing immigrants already in the U.S. -- that is, he supported "amnesty."...


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