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What Would Reagan Have Thought?

Peter Robinson, former Reagan speechwriter and Hoover fellow, has a must-read column on the Gipper and immigration. It is a scholarly brief for the case that Reagan, while committed to law and order and defense of our borders, was unapologetically pro-immigration for both ideological and partisan reasons. As to the latter, Peter explains:

All his political life, Ronald Reagan wooed voters outside his base. Who were Reagan Democrats who gave him landslide victories in 1980 and 1984? Voters of German, Irish, Italian, Polish and other ethnic backgrounds — in a word, the children and grandchildren of immigrants who entered the country at points such as Ellis Island.

Today Reagan would have wooed not only Reagan Democrats but the children and grandchildren of immigrants who entered the country from Mexico. He would have done so as a matter of principle — as we have seen, he gloried in the country’s basic openness to immigrants — but he would also have recognized that Republicans face a math problem.

Whereas the proportion of the population composed of Americans of northern European descent—the traditional Republican base—is steadily shrinking, the proportion composed of Hispanics is rapidly expanding. The GOP will capture the support of some large fraction of Hispanics or it will become as irrelevant as the Federalists and the Whigs.

There are those loud pundits — some themselves emigrants from Anglo countries – who reject all that. Our culture will be swamped! Americans will lose jobs! They will find a scrap of evidence here — ooh, look at the long line for applications at the poultry factory! — and horror stories there. And as they trumpet their opposition to immigration, they point to evidence that Hispanics remain wary of the Republican Party (well, yeah) and choose to ignore the fact that, with the exception of Jews, immigrant groups have historically become more conservative as they climbed the economic ladder.

The critics seem to want America to remain just as it is (with them safely inside the wall). But “America” is not and cannot be a static phenomenon. Quoting Reagan, Peter reminds us:

Describing America as “a shining city” in his 1989 farewell address, for example, he said, “[a]nd if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

None of this is to excuse the unconscionable refusal to enforce our borders or the cries of “Racism!” that greet every effort to secure those borders. But “‘Senator,’ the sheriff says to Sen. McCain at the end of his advertisement, ‘you’re one of us.’ One white man to another white man — speaking the very words most likely to alienate every Hispanic voter who hears them.” And when John McCain stoops to such an ad, which — wink-wink, nod-nod — takes up the nativist line, it’s time to take stock of where we are heading and what message we are conveying to those who want a piece of the American dream.


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