Friday A/V Club: Ronald Reagan Says 'Open the Border Both Ways'

George H.W. Bush: "We have made illegal some kinds of labor that I'd like to see legal."


Three and a half decades ago, Republican rhetoric about the border sounded rather different than it does today. From April 23, 1980, here's Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush discussing illegal immigration at a debate before the Texas presidential primary:

The full debate can be seen here. The sentence that gets cut off at the end of the above clip is "This is the only safety valve right now they have, with that unemployment, that probably keeps the lid from blowing off down there."

From the transcript:

AUDIENCE QUESTION: Do you think the children of illegal aliens should be allowed to attend Texas public schools free, or do you think that their parents should pay for their education?


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 [that] society is giving to their neighbors. But it has— the problem has to be solved. The problem has to be solved. Because as we have kind of 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.

The answer to your question is much more fundamental than whether they attend Houston schools, it seems to me. If they're living here, I don't want to see…six- and eight-year-old kids being made, one, totally uneducated, and made to feel like they're living outside the law. Let's address ourselves ot the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people. Part of my family is Mexican.

[audience applause]

REAGAN: Could I add to that? I think the time has come that the United States, and our neighbors, particularly our neighbor to the south, should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we've ever had. And I think that we haven't been sensitive enough to our size and our power. They have a problem of 40 to 50 percent unemployment. Now this cannot continue without the possibility arising—with regard to that other country that we talked about, of Cuba and what it is stirring up—of the possibility of trouble below the border. And we could have a very hostile and strange neighbor on our border.

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'd pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. They can cross. Open the borders both ways.

My own ideal immigration reform would look something like this.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For another memorable moment from the 1980 campaign, go here.)