What Would Reagan Do on Immigration?

Former Reagan speechwriter Peter Robinson tries to answer that very good question in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal. It’s a question my conservative Republican friends should ask themselves as the party tries, once again, to turn public opposition to illegal immigration into political success at the polls.

Robinson correctly observes that Reagan would have had nothing to do with the anger and inflamed rhetoric that so often marks the immigration debate today. “Ronald Reagan was no kind of nativist,” he concludes, noting that Reagan was always reaching out to voters beyond the traditional Republican base, including the fast-growing Hispanic population.

It’s worth remembering that Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which opened the door to citizenship for nearly 3 million people who had been living in the country illegally. Robinson is confident Reagan would have supported the kind of comprehensive immigration reform championed by President George W. Bush and approved by the Senate in 2006.

For the record, I made similar observations and included a few of the same Reagan quotes in an op-ed I wrote soon after Reagan’s passing in June 2004

My only quibble with Robinson is his assertion that Reagan would have insisted that we successfully enforce the current immigration law first before contemplating any changes. It’s true that the 1986 IRCA contained new enforcement measures and launched an exponential rise in spending on border enforcement. But by all accounts the 1986 law failed to stem the inflow of illegal immigration.

My hunch is that President Reagan would not have simply favored spending more money on an approach that has so clearly failed to deliver. Although he embraced the conservative label, Reagan was always ready to challenge the status quo and change the law to further his vision of a free society and limited government.

I wish more of the Gipper’s admirers today shared his benevolent attitude toward immigration.