Republicans vs. Reagan

The GOP abandons the Gipper on immigration.


ZMichael Evans / National Archives and Records Administration,

On April 23, 1980, at a Republican presidential primary debate, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush discussed America's southern border in a way that sounds like science fiction to our modern ears.

Bush presented illegal immigration as a problem of prohibition, not criminality: "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," he said.

Reagan, meanwhile, wanted to tear down the notion of a border wall: "Rather than talking about putting up a fence," he said, "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."

That was then. President Reagan's 1986 amnesty, which was sold as a way to drastically reduce illegal immigration, was instead followed by a major increase. By 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed a much more punitive legislative package, both major parties had shifted heavily into restrictionism. "We cannot tolerate illegal immigration and we must stop it," the 1996 Democratic Party platform read, sounding a lot like Donald Trump today. "For years…Washington talked tough but failed to act…Our borders might as well not have existed. The border was under-patrolled, and what patrols there were, were under-equipped. Drugs flowed freely. Illegal immigration was rampant. Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again."

That year also marked the first time in modern history that a Republican Party platform opposed the birthright citizenship enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. (On the Democratic side, Sen. Harry Reid was decrying birthright citizenship as early as 1993, though he later reversed his position.)

In GOP politics, presidential candidates not named "Reagan" or "Bush" have been increasingly severe in their approach to illegal immigration. Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) almost saw his 2008 candidacy fail over his prior support for comprehensive immigration reform, and he reacted by reversing several previous positions. Mitt Romney famously said he would encourage illegal immigrants to "self-deport."

Nothing, however, compares to the kinds of comments that have already come flying from Republican candidates in the 2016 cycle—and not just from Donald Trump. Here's a sampling of the decidedly non-Reagan-esque sentiments coming this year from GOP presidential hopefuls:

  • "We need to seal our borders-but not just the southern border, the northern border, the Pacific border, the Atlantic border, every border." —Ben Carson, August 19
  • "We must insist on assimilation. Immigration without assimilation is an invasion. We need to tell folks who want to come here they need to come here legally. Learn English, adopt our values, roll up your sleeves and get to work." —Bobby Jindal, August 6
  • "At any moment, FedEx can tell you where that package is…We need to have a system that tracks you from the moment you come in, and then when your time is up, whether it's three months or six months or nine months or 12 months—however long your visa is, then we go get you and tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, thanks for coming—time to go.'" —Chris Christie, August 29
  • "Some people have asked me [about the northern border security]. They've raised some legitimate concerns, including some law enforcement folks, that brought that up to me at one of our town hall meetings about a week and a half ago. So that is a legitimate issue for us to look at." —Scott Walker, August 30
  • "There's an industry that has been set up in L.A. where Chinese women come over on a tourist visa and have a baby. This abuse has been going on for a while. We need to stop it." —Carly Fiorina, August 27
  • "A woman gets pregnant. She's nine months, she walks across the border, she has the baby in the United States, and we take care of the baby for 85 years? I don't think so. And by the way, Mexico and almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn't have that. We're the only ones dumb enough, stupid enough to have it." —Donald Trump, September 16