Republican presidential candidates will no doubt have endless platitudes for Ronald Reagan at the debate scheduled to take place at the library of the 40th President in California’s Simi Valley on September 27 – but expect those words of praise to come to an abrupt stop when it comes to their political idol’s stance on immigration. While the U.S. is still dealing with the economic disparities and wealth inequality wreaked upon us by the two terms of Reagan (and many of us will never forget his despicable and deadly neglect of the AIDS crisis or his policies on Central America), there was one area where he did some good: immigration.
His immigration record offers a stark contrast to the current GOP. From the beginning of his first presidential campaign, Reagan offered a centrist and optimistic approach on immigration, speaking on the issue in often soaring terms that would now be at odds with the nativism, disinformation and paranoia of today’s Republican Party.
“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,” Reagan questioned during a GOP primary debate against George H. W. Bush in 1980. “And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back.”
Reagan’s approach to immigrants was not an outlier, either, back then. When questioned on the children of undocumented immigrants attending public schools (an issue that would not be decided by the Supreme Court until Plyler v. Doe two years later), the Senior Bush, who later served as Reagan’s Vice President, responded he didn’t want “a whole thing of 6- and 8-year-old kids being made one totally uneducated and made to feel they’re living outside the law. Let’s address ourselves to the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people.” Bush also noted his Mexican-American family members (one of whom, daughter-in-law Columba Bush, would later get attacked by Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election).
After taking the White House in the 1980 election, Reagan acted to protect millions of undocumented immigrants, including signing the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act into law in 1986. The bill, which passed a split Congress by significant bipartisan majorities, granted permanent residency to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants.
“The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society,” he said when signing the bill into law. “Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”
Reagan also took the kind of administrative action that GOP attorneys general, including Texas’ corrupt Ken Paxton, now commonly seek to block through the anti-immigrant judicial pipeline. When legislative efforts to protect family members excluded from 1986’s law failed, the Reagan administration “announced that minor children of parents granted amnesty by the law would get protection from deportation,” the Associated Press reported.
Bush also took significant executive action as president, in 1990 allowing 1.5 million spouses and children of legalized immigrants – nearly half of the undocumented population at the time – to apply for deferred action. In fact, every single president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has taken immigration-related executive actions, the American Immigration Council said in a 2014 report. But when former President Barack Obama tried to protect undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents through the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, Paxton successfully sued to block the policy. Paxton has continued using conservative courts to stifle immigration policy, suing the Biden administration at least a dozen times as of January.
Reagan again spoke of immigration during his famous farewell address to the nation in January 1989, referring back to his vision for America as a “shining city on a hill.”
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it,” he said. “But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, 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.”
And, to be clear, the attacks on immigrants began to tear its ugly head once again with one of Reagan’s gubernatorial successors: Pete Wilson, a.k.a El Diablo, who pushed the xenophobic Prop. 187 in 1994. Any goodwill engendered by Reagan signing the immigration bill evaporated with the California GOP pushing that horrific ballot measure.
Unfortunately, that ugly vision has prevailed in today’s GOP candidates. Reagan’s shining city has been replaced with one of a nightmarish America that falsely frames arriving asylum seekers and migrants as an imminent threat to the nation. Even after dangerous “invasion” rhetoric has resulted in a body count in communities like El Paso, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the first GOP debate in Wisconsin last month platformed deadly “invasion” conspiracy theory on a national scale.
Candidates including ex-President Trump, drug company executive Vivek Ramaswamy, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have also endorsed using violence against our neighbor Mexico, the latter turning his pledge to leave Mexican “stone-cold dead” into a campaign slogan. America’s Voice Political Director Zachary Mueller noted that superPACs aligned with both Trump and DeSantis have released two “wildly xenophobic” ads ahead of the debate. “As both campaigns have done, the pro-Trump ad courts racist political violence, peddling the white nationalist ‘invasion’ conspiracy theory, falsely tying it to the fentanyl crisis.”
While Trump likely won’t be onstage at the Reagan Library this week, Ramaswamy has joined DeSantis in mimicking his extremism – and then taken it to a level so over-the-top that it would almost be hilarious if it weren’t so dystopian and deadly serious. In one campaign pledge, Ramaswamy has claimed he would deport the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants along with their parents. Let’s be clear: these children, numbering at least 4.4 million of them as of 2018, are U.S. citizens. This is their home. “When asked again if these children would be deported along with their families, Ramaswamy doubled down,” NBC News reported. “‘That is correct,’ he said. Ramaswamy, like some other conservatives, believes the 14th Amendment does not confer birthright citizenship.”
Republicans have been on a rapid descent on immigration since the Senate passed a bipartisan reform bill a decade ago, refusing to help champion solutions addressing our long outdated immigration system and the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. There were no solutions offered at the first GOP debate in Wisconsin last month – and that won’t change at Reagan’s library, despite his immigration record. The GOP has instead sought to wall off Reagan’s symbolic shining city on a hill with an ugly physical barrier constructed through corruption, government shutdowns and fraud, ultimately felled by $15 handsaws.