On April 23, 1980, the two leading Republican candidates for president—and the two people who would occupy the White House for the next 12 years—were asked a debate question about illegal immigration. The first candidate, George H.W. Bush, expressed support for giving illegal-immigrant children the same social-welfare benefits as native-born Americans, then portrayed the issue as one fundamentally about prohibition rather than lawlessness: "[A]s we have kind of made illegal some kinds of labor that I'd like to see legal," Bush said, "we're creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law."
Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, championed a version of open borders: "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."
Thirty-five years later, that exchange (you can watch the video here) now reads like science fiction. Republican presidential candidates in 2015 are elbowing each other to see who can be the toughest against illegal (and often legal) immigrants. Donald Trump shot to the top of early primary polls after calling Mexican immigrants rapists and accusing the Mexican government of deliberately emptying its prisons into the U.S.; he then released a plan that would build a permanent border wall, triple the number of border cops, require every employer-employee contract to be vetted through a national database, end birthright citizenship, "impound" all remittance payments that are "derived from illegal wages," and institute a "pause" in the issuance of new green cards, for starters.
Trump's runner-up in early national polling, Ben Carson, wants to not just "secure" but "seal" the border. And not just the one with Mexico: "the northern border, the Pacific border, the Atlantic border, every border." Carson also wants to use drones against illegals, and end the 14th Amendment's scourge of "anchor babies," a policy goal shared by his fellow GOP competitors Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and Bobby Jindal, at minimum.
How did the GOP progress (or regress, depending on your point of view) over four decades from a party whose two leading candidates—important 20th century political figures both—were immigration enthusiasts who opposed fences and praised illegal immigrants, to one whose two leading candidates (political novices both) deride illegals, seek massive walls, and wish to cut back on legal immigration as well?
Restrictionists will tell you that, well, times have changed, thanks in no small part to Reagan's 1986 amnesty, which was supposed to curtail illegal immigration but instead goosed it, leading to record numbers of immigrants legal and illegal alike. Immigration advocates will counter that times have indeed changed—but for the better, especially in Mexico, which is no longer sending migrants northward at anywhere near the same rates, in part because of increasing prosperity and lowered birth rates there.
Because immigration policy is actually difficult, involving massive components that are complex on their own (how many legal visas should be issued and in what category decided by whom; what to do about the existing population of illegals both in terms of overall status and day-to-day interactions with the state; how to deal with official and unofficial points of entry; and how to handle any of these issues without overly intruding on the rights of U.S. citizens), and because lawmakers and activists have for a decade made the foolish bet that these issues can only be dealt with comprehensively, in the same package; the unsatisfying status quo lumbers on, fueling suspicions that out-of-touch elites actually like it that way.
Whatever the explanation for how the issue has become a Republican litmus test, one that bends presidential candidates into fascinating new shapes, it is interesting to observe the shifts over time via the vehicle of presidential-year party platforms.
In 1988, for example, the GOP platform's immigration section contained all of 56 words, beginning with "We welcome those from other lands who bring to America their ideals and industry." Four years later the section was four times as long, and titled "New Members of the American Family." By 2008 the entry had swollen to 833 words, with the more martial title of "Immigration, National Security, and the Rule of Law" (there was an additional 100-plus words on "Ridding the Nation of Criminal Street Gangs").
Many of the issues making headlines in 2015, such as border walls and sanctuary cities and birthright citizenship, have showed up a time or two during the past 35 years of party documents, especially of late. Generally speaking, if a Reagan or a Bush was involved, the language is flowy and positive, and the negatives downplayed. Anyone else, and the gloves come straight off.
The following is a breakdown of, and quotations from, each GOP platform's immigration sections from 1980 to 2012:
Title: "Immigration and refugee policy"
Problems: Too many refugees worldwide.
Solutions: Vague ("coordinate plans for absorbing refugee populations with regional bodies," "adopt immigration laws and follow enforcement procedures which will fairly and effectively implement the immigration policy desired by the American people") but also welcoming ("an orderly approach to the great problem of oppressed people seeking entry, so that the deserving can be accepted in America without adding to their hardships").
Residence in the United States is one of the most precious and valued of conditions. The traditional hospitality of the American people has been severely tested by recent events, but it remains the strongest in the world. Republicans are proud that our people have opened their arms and hearts to strangers from abroad and we favor an immigration and refugee policy which is consistent with this tradition. We believe that to the fullest extent possible those immigrants should be admitted who will make a positive contribution to America and who are willing to accept the fundamental American values and way of life. At the same time, United States immigration and refugee policy must reflect the interests of our national security and economic well-being.
Title: "Immigration" (Reagan tended to get to the point)
Problems: Refugees redux, loss of "control of our borders," 1 million "illegal aliens" entering each year.
Solutions: "responsible reforms"!
Our history is a story about immigrants. We are proud that America still symbolizes hope and promise to the world. We have shown unparalleled generosity to the persecuted and to those seeking a better life. In return, they have helped to make a great land greater still.
We affirm our country's absolute fight to control its borders. Those desiring to enter must comply with our immigration laws. Failure to do so not only is an offense to the American people but is fundamentally unjust to those in foreign lands patiently waiting for legal entry. We will preserve the principle of family reunification.
Problems: What problems!
Solutions: We just passed it!
Sample Whole Enchilada:
We welcome those from other lands who bring to America their ideals and industry. At the same time, we insist upon our country's absolute right to control its borders. We call upon our allies to join us in the responsibility shared by all democratic nations for resettlement of refugees, especially those fleeing communism in Southeast Asia.
Title: "New Members of the American Family"
Problems: Illegal immigration, which "undermines the integrity of border communities and already crowded urban neighborhoods."
Solutions: Boost the Border Patrol, increase cross-border coordination, stiffen penalties for smuggling and document-fraud, and promote the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Our Nation of immigrants continues to welcome those seeking a better life. This reflects our past, when some newcomers fled intolerance; some sought prosperity; some came as slaves. All suffered and sacrificed but hoped their children would have a better life. All searched for a shared vision—and found one in America. Today we are stronger for our diversity.
Illegal entry into the United States, on the other hand, threatens the social compact on which immigration is based.
Title: "A Sensible Immigration Policy"
Words: 497, plus an addition 261 on protecting the flag and making English the official language
Problems: Do we have problems! Un-"manageable levels" of immigration, "asylum abuses," "false documents," and "crisis proportions" of illegal immigration which "burdens taxpayers, strains public services, takes jobs, and increases crime."
Solutions: Do we have solutions! End birthright citizenship, cut off government benefits for illegals "other than emergency aid," make the crimes of "domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, child neglect and child abandonment" deportable offenses for all resident aliens; make workplace sponsors of legal immigrants "legally responsible for their financial well-being," support California's Proposition 187, "balance the competing goals of uniting families of our citizens and admitting specially talented persons," expedite exclusion of false asylum claimants, "tighten border enforcement, speed up deportation of criminal aliens, toughen penalties for overstaying visas, and streamline the Immigration and Naturalization Service."
Republicans believe that by eliminating the magnet for illegal immigration, increasing border security, enforcing our immigration laws, and producing counterfeit-proof documents, we will finally put an end to the illegal immigration crisis.
Title: "From Many, One"
Problems: "lax enforcement of our borders," "tragic exploitation of smuggled immigrants."
Solutions: Boost the Border Patrol, split enforcement duties from the provision of visas, increase the number of visas for high-tech workers and low-skill farm laborers, give family-reunification priority to spouses and children, harsher penalties for smugglers and forgers, make English the official language, and protect the flag. Also: "Because free trade is the most powerful force for the kind of development that creates a middle class and offers opportunity at home, the long-term solution for illegal immigration is economic growth in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean."
To all Americans, particularly immigrants and minorities, we send a clear message: this is the party of freedom and progress, and it is your home. […]
We have reaped enormous human capital in the genius and talent and industry of those who have escaped nations captive to totalitarianism. Our country still attracts the best and brightest to invent here, create wealth here, improve the quality of life here. As a nation of immigrants, we welcome all new Americans who have entered lawfully and are prepared to follow our laws and provide for themselves and their families. In their search for a better life, they strengthen our economy, enrich our culture, and defend the nation in war and in peace. To ensure fairness for those wishing to reside in this country, and to meet the manpower needs of our expanding economy, a total overhaul of the immigration system is sorely needed.
Title: "Supporting Humane and Legal Immigration"
Problems: "We must know the identity of all visitors who enter the United States, and we must know when they leave." Also, the economy needs labor.
Solutions: Boosting the Border Patrol, requiring biometric data at border crossings, upping workplace enforcement, stiffening penalties for smuggling and document-fraud, and deporting illegals without a hearing. Also, creating a new temp-worker program with eligibility for current illegals (see below).
The Republican Party supports reforming the immigration system to ensure that it is legal, safe, orderly and humane. It also supports measures to ensure that the immigration system is structured to address the needs of national security. America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants, and the Republican Party honors them. A growing economy requires a growing number of workers, and President Bush has proposed a new temporary worker program that applies when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs. This new program would allow workers who currently hold jobs to come out of the shadows and to participate legally in America's economy. It would allow men and women who enter the program to apply for citizenship in the same manner as those who apply from outside the United States. There must be strong workplace enforcement with tough penalties against employees and employers who violate immigration laws. We oppose amnesty because it would have the effect of encouraging illegal immigration and would give an unfair advantage to those who have broken our laws.
Title: "Immigration, National Security, and the Rule of Law"
Words: 833, plus another 111 on "Ridding the Nation of Criminal Street Gangs"
Problems: "In an age of terrorism, drug cartels, and criminal gangs, allowing millions of unidentified persons to enter and remain in this country poses grave risks to the sovereignty of the United States and the security of its people. We simply must be able to track who is entering and leaving our country."
Solutions: "completing the border fence quickly," enhancing and broadening E-Verify, denying federal funds denial for "self-described sanctuary cities," deporting criminal aliens "without delay," "correcting court decisions that have made deportation so difficult," "securing the borders" and "our ports of entry," boosting the Border Patrol, "smarter" workplace enforcement, opposing driver's licenses and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, making English the official language.
We oppose amnesty. The rule of law suffers if government policies encourage or reward illegal activity. The American people's rejection of en masse legalizations is especially appropriate given the federal government's past failures to enforce the law.
Title: "The Rule of Law: Legal Immigration"
Problems: "In an age of terrorism, drug cartels, human trafficking, and criminal gangs, the presence of millions of unidentified persons in this country poses grave risks to the safety and the sovereignty of the United States. Our highest priority, therefore, is to secure the rule of law both at our borders and at ports of entry." Also, the administration's "backdoor amnesty program unrecognized in law" and "little regard for the life-and-death situations facing the men and women of the border patrol."
Solutions: Make E-Verify mandatory for every worker nationwide, double-layer the border fence, "mandatory use of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (S.A.V.E.) program—an internet-based system that verifies the lawful presence of applicants—prior to the granting of any State or federal government entitlements or IRS refunds," give the Department of Homeland Security "long-term detention authority to keep dangerous but undeportable aliens off our streets," make gang membership a deportable offense, encourage state efforts to curb illegal immigration, deny federal funds to sanctuary cities and also universities that give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
We recognize that for most of those seeking entry into this country, the lack of respect for the rule of law in their homelands has meant economic exploitation and political oppression by corrupt elites. In this country, the rule of law guarantees equal treatment to every individual, including more than one million immigrants to whom we grant permanent residence every year. That is why we oppose any form of amnesty for those who, by intentionally violating the law, disadvantage those who have obeyed it.