Earlier this week, during the Republican presidential primary debate at the Reagan Library in California, the candidates were asked about their views on immigration. Almost all of the candidates endorsed harsh, punitive, and likely ineffective measures to deal with undocumented immigrants, with Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) in favor of militarization and former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) endorsing a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) focused instead on welcoming legal immigration, with Paul saying that we should not have a fence on the border because that’s not “what America is all about.” Huntsman suggested that the U.S. has to make sure it deals with the problem in a “human” manner like President Ronald Reagan did.
The invocation of Reagan’s legacy is an important point. In fact, if one looks back to one of the 1980 GOP presidential primary debates, it’s clear that the party’s debates over the issue have gone far to the right of where they used to be. In a debate at the Women’s Voter Forum that year, candidates George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan responded to a question about whether the U.S. should allow the children of undocumented immigrants to be in public schools by noting that immigration has to be dealt with in a comprehensive and humane way. Bush referred to these immigrants as “decent, family-loving people” and Reagan reminded debate viewers that immigrants who are working here are going to be paying taxes here too and dismissed the idea of a border fence:
BUSH: Look, 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. But today, if those people are here, I would reluctantly say I think they would get whatever it is, you know, that society is giving to their neighbors. But the problem has to be solved. The problem has to be solved. Because, as we have 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 that are in violation of the law and secondly we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico. […] If they’re living here, I don’t want to see six and eight year old kids being made totally uneducated and made to feel like they’re living totally outside the law. These are good people, strong people.
REAGAN: Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit. And then, while they’re working and earning here they can pay taxes here. And then when they want to go back, they can go back. Open the borders both ways.