Reagan vs. Trump: "Let [illegals] come here legally with a work permit [and] they'd pay taxes here…Open the borders both ways"

Reagan was in favor of legalizing illegal immigrants. What the hell happened to the GOP? Bill Clinton was in favor of free trade. What happened to the Dems?


Back in April, Reason TV released the video above as part of a special "Open" issue, which celebrated the virtues of things ranging from open source, open minds, open markets…and open borders.

Donald Trump's candidacy—and the entire Republican field's willingness to sign on to nativist plans to deport undocumented immigrants and force us all to run our employment opportunities via an invasive E-Verify employment system—has brought the question of illegal immigration to the forefront of campaign speeches. Indeed, Trump's first official white paper deals with the issue (read Robby Soave's quick take on it here and mine here).

While emotions on immigration run hot, the facts are pretty clear-cut: Immigrants (including illegals) are good for the economy and good for the country. So is free-er trade, as embodied in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and a bunch of Republicans too have dumped on. Hello, Fortress America and goodbye to the ideals of openness and engagement that helped make America a great country. (And a note to Trump: The TPP excludes China; it is a way of gaining leverage against that country by creating easier trade with a dozen countries.)

If there's one thing that virtually all economists agree on, it's that reducing trade barriers creates a richer, more prosperous, and more peaceful world. Former advisers to both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have signed an open letter urging fast-track approval of the Trans Pacific Partnership for the same reason that Adam Smith touted free trade in The Wealth of Nations: "It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy." As it is with families, so it is with nations….

If Hillary Clinton doesn't want to listen to Adam Smith—or her former self—she might listen to her husband, who signed the North American Free Trade Agreement over the objections of his own party back in 1993. "we have made a decision now that will permit us to create an economic order in the world that will promote more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace," he said.

If the Democrats are driven nuts by the idea of open markets, Republicans go bananas over the notion of open borders. Virtually all GOP contenders for the Republican presidential nomination have called for a "time out" or a slow down on immigration until they say the border with Mexico is fully secured.

And most want only to let in immigrants with work skills that they say will help the economy and not take away or lower wages for low-skilled, native-born workers….

Think about it: Republicans routinely complain that the government can't deliver the mail or educate children, but they're convinced that government bureaucrats can perfectly adjust the mix of foreign workers in the vast and complicated American economy.

Yet even economists who are critical of immigrants with low skills recognize that they don't take jobs from native workers. Instead, they head to the places where the economy is booming and employers are desperate for extra bodies. And they stop coming or go back home when the work dries up, especially if they know they'll be able to cross borders safely and legally.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and protectionism tend to bubble to the top during economically stagnant periods, so the appeal to closing borders to goods and people is somewhat understandable. But maybe those urging us to hunker down and build a wall along the Mexican border would like to listen to Ronald Reagan on the subject:

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.

Read Reagan's full quote, which he made during a 1980 debate with George H.W. Bush, and watch the whole video.