As a rule, the Republicans campaigning for president sound more like they are running for sheriff of Yuma County. In this race, the acceptable lines on illegal immigration are hard, harder and hardest. It's rare to hear someone call for policies that include "love and compassion," as John McCain did in Sunday's Univision debate.
Compassion for illegal immigrants? Is he kidding?
In reality, McCain is truer to GOP tradition than Mike Huckabee, who says, "I will take our country back for those who belong here," or Rudy Giuliani, who says foreigners should have to carry cards with biometric identifiers, or Mitt Romney, who insists Huckabee and Giuliani are not nearly tough enough. For evidence that the party has undergone a major change, look no further than the party's greatest hero, Ronald Reagan.
Reagan didn't so much accept immigrants as smother them with kisses. When he announced his presidential candidacy in 1979, he called for closer ties with Mexico and Canada: "It is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners." As president, he said providence had deliberately placed the United States "between the two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world."
In 1977, Reagan expressed doubt about the "illegal alien fuss" and suggested that such foreigners were "doing work our own people won't do." In 1986, he signed the immigration reform bill that conservatives now revile as "amnesty."
Clearly the party has undergone a transformation since his day. The question is why. It's not just that we have an estimated 12 million foreigners here illegally—the 1984 GOP platform estimated there were 12 million then. Their economic impact hasn't changed: They still mostly take unpleasant, low-wage jobs. The gripe that they don't speak English and don't assimilate has been around a long time.
But a quarter century ago, the issue was seen through a different lens. What really changed the party faithful's attitude toward illegal immigrants was something seemingly unrelated: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.
Back then, we were in an ideological as well as a military competition with communism. And for any argument offered by the other side, we always had a decisive rejoinder: Why is it that in communist countries, people risk their lives to leave, and in free nations, people risk their lives to come?
There were plenty of examples—Chinese fleeing to Taiwan in 1949, East Germans dodging bullets to get to West Berlin, Cubans and Vietnamese taking to the ocean in rickety boats in search of refuge. What they all affirmed was the superiority of our system. We stood as a beacon of liberty, and millions of oppressed people were drawn to our light.
In that context, Mexicans and other immigrants, legal or not, further confirmed the superiority of democracy, individual liberty and free markets. Even if we had some reservations about their arrival, we took it as a compliment that they were willing to go to such lengths to reach our soil.
But in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and in due course, both the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union expired. Those events soon altered the general perception of foreign newcomers. Instead of an endorsement of our way of life, illegal immigrants (and even legal ones) were increasingly seen as a threat to it.
In the 1980s, Republicans rarely made a big deal out of the issue. But in 1992, one Republican did—Pat Buchanan, in his effort to unseat incumbent President George Bush. Two years later, the Republican governor of California, Pete Wilson, successfully pushed a ballot initiative to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants.
By 1996, the GOP's national platform declared, "Illegal immigration has reached crisis proportions … (and) burdens taxpayers, strains public services, takes jobs, and increases crime." In 2000, George W. Bush sounded more moderate. But today, it's clear the party's center of gravity on the issue has shifted, probably for good. Without the backdrop of the Cold War, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free no longer have the same romantic appeal.
A quarter century ago, we saw that many foreigners were willing to do almost anything to join a free and prosperous society where they could make a better life for their children, and Republicans took pride in saying: We want you on our side. Today, they have a different message: So what?
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