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Many Claiming the Mantle of Reagan Have Turned on Reagan’s Vision

On the matter of immigration reform and the GOP, I have a couple of thoughts. The first is that in his column today, Michael Gerson of the Washington Post writes, “The GOP’s political goal is modest. It doesn’t need to win majorities among minorities, just avoid lopsided losses.”

That’s quite right. Consider Mitt Romney in 2012. If he had merely secured 42 percent of the Hispanic vote—rather than 27 percent—Romney would have won the popular vote and carried Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico. And if breaking the 40 percent barrier sounds like an impossible goal, recall that George W. Bush won over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004. That doesn’t mean Governor Romney didn’t have problems with other parts of the electorate, including blue-collar voters in key states. It simply means that losing the Hispanic vote by 44 percent makes it increasingly difficult for Republicans to win national elections.

My second observation is that many of the most ferocious critics of immigration reform claim they are the sons and daughters of the Reagan Revolution, the true of heirs of Reagan. But they are–in both policy and tone–most un-Reagan like.

As this post documents, Reagan himself not only signed legislation granting amnesty to three million illegal immigrants in exchange for relatively weak enforcement measures; he never demonized illegal immigrants. In 1977, for example, Reagan criticized “the illegal alien fuss” and said illegal aliens may “actually [be] doing work our own people won’t do.”

More broadly, Reagan emphasized the great and vivifying diversity that immigrants brought to this country, and that flowed into and became as one with the national fabric. In Reagan’s words: 

We have a statue in New York Harbor . . . of a woman holding a torch of welcome to those who enter our country to become Americans. She has greeted millions upon millions of immigrants to our country. She welcomes them still. She represents our open door. All of the immigrants who came to us brought their own music, literature, customs, and ideas. And the marvelous thing, a thing of which we’re proud, is they did not have to relinquish these things in order to fit in. In fact, what they brought to America became American. And this diversity has more than enriched us; it has literally shaped us.

One doesn’t hear this kind of elevated rhetoric from many conservatives these days.

Ronald Reagan’s views on immigration, legal and illegal, were connected to a broader vision and conception of America. The fact is that this capacious, generous and hopeful outlook has been replaced by rhetoric that is, from some quarters at least, jagged edged and sends a signal to Hispanics: We don’t really want you; and we don’t much like you.

I understand that one can oppose illegal immigration while also being a champion for legal immigration. But there’s simply no question that these days many on the right are hyper-focusing on illegal immigration, even though the influx of illegal immigrants to America is considerably less than it was in the 1990s. (As Linda Chavez has written, “Today, illegal immigration is at its lowest since 1972. Indeed, more Mexican immigrants are now leaving the country than coming here, with net immigration from Mexico below zero for the first time since the racially motivated mass deportations of Mexicans … during the 1930s.”) There are very few positive words about legal immigrants–and those that are said have a pro forma quality to them. I’m struck as well by the overall lack of attention when it comes to attracting high-skilled immigrants. 

The Republican Party’s greatest presidents, Lincoln and Reagan, wanted America to be a welcoming society to immigrants. They wanted the GOP to be a proudly visible pro-immigrant party. You would think those who most often claim the mantle of Reagan would want the same thing again. They actually don’t. And that’s not only a shame; it has come at quite a high political cost. 



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