The first Republican presidential primary debates will be broadcast on Fox News Thursday, and immigration reform is expected to be a key topic of debate. Though the current candidates don’t have a clear policy plan for dealing with the undocumented immigrant population, many of them have recently pandered to the majority of GOP voters who support mass deportation.
But the GOP’s stance on immigration reform hasn’t always been this harsh. Thirty-five years ago, during a primary debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, both former presidents spoke with compassion about immigrants living in the United States when they were asked whether the U.S. should allow the children of undocumented immigrants to go to public schools.
“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,” Bush said at the time, calling immigrants “good people, strong people.”
“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,” Bush added.
Reagan responded in kind, stating in part, “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?” “Open the borders both ways,” he added.
Six years later, as president of the United States, Reagan signed legislation that created a pathway to citizenship for 3 million undocumented immigrants.
Though current Republican candidates have invoked Reagan’s description of immigrants as “Americans by choice,” their rhetoric on immigration reform has not included the same kind of compassion that Reagan and Bush once showed.
Instead, most Republican candidates are calling for a border enforcement-only policy that involves a taller border wall, more boots on the ground, and additional drones. Candidates have also slammed President Barack Obama for taking executive action to grant deportation relief and work authorization to some undocumented immigrants. Then, when called to address the 11 million undocumented immigrant population, most candidates have punted on a clear-cut policy sometimes calling for this population to be sent across the border or into second-class status.
For example, Donald Trump, who is leading in the polls even after making headlines for calling immigrants rapists and drug dealers, recently advocated for a mass deportation policy that would let only the “good ones” back into the country. He also called for building a border wall that Mexico will have to finance.
And last month, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who will appear in the second-tier candidate debate, gave a shout out to Reagan’s “Americans by choice” statement before launching into an anti-immigrant tirade. “It’s not fair that some people try to jump the immigration line by coming across our border illegally,” Perry said.