Commentary

Reagan Embraced Free Trade and Immigration

By Daniel Griswold
June 24, 2004

In the many eulogies to Ronald Reagan since his passing, virtually all acknowledge his role in defeating Soviet communism and reviving America’s self-confidence. But another aspect of Reagan’s record that should not be forgotten was his commitment to keeping America open to trade and immigration.

Reagan’s vision of an America open to commerce and peaceful, hardworking immigrants contradicts the anti-trade and anti-immigration views espoused by Lou Dobbs, Bill O’Reilly, Pat Buchanan, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and many others who claim to speak for the conservative causes Reagan largely defined.

Reagan’s heart and head were clearly on the side of free trade. While president, he declared in 1986: “Our trade policy rests firmly on the foundation of free and open markets. I recognize … the inescapable conclusion that all of history has taught: The freer the flow of world trade, the stronger the tides of human progress and peace among nations.”

It was the Reagan administration that launched the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986 that lowered global tariffs and created the World Trade Organization. It was his administration that won approval of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement in 1988. That agreement soon expanded to include Mexico in what became the North American Free Trade Agreement, realizing a vision that Reagan first articulated in the 1980 campaign. It was Reagan who vetoed protectionist textile quota bills in 1985 and 1988.

During Reagan’s eight years in office, Americans eagerly expanded their engagement in the global economy. In 1980, the year before Reagan became president, Americans spent a total of $334 billion on imported goods and services and payments on foreign investment in the United States. By 1988, his last year in office, American spending in the global economy had nearly doubled, to $663 billion. If Reagan was a “protectionist,” it had no discernable effect on the ability of Americans to spend freely in the global marketplace. Fittingly, one of the major federal buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue is named the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

Like most post-war presidents, Reagan championed free trade while selectively deviating from it. Critics of trade note correctly that Reagan negotiated “voluntary” import quotas for steel and Japanese cars and imposed Section 201 tariffs on imported motorcycles to protect Harley-Davidson. All true. But those were the exceptions and not the rule. They were tactical retreats designed to defuse rising protectionists pressures in Congress.

Reagan’s words and deeds regarding immigration were equally expansive. At a ceremony at Ellis Island in 1982, he spoke movingly of immigrants who “possessed a determination that with hard work and freedom, they would live a better life and their children even more so.” As with trade, Reagan’s record on immigration was mixed. He signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which included stepped up border enforcement and sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. But that legislation also legalized 2.8 million undocumented workers. More immigrants entered the United States legally under President Reagan’s watch than under any previous U.S. president since Teddy Roosevelt.

Like President George W. Bush today, Reagan had the good sense and compassion to see illegal immigrants not as criminals but as human beings striving to build better lives through honest work. In a radio address in 1977, he noted that apples were rotting on trees in New England because no Americans were willing to pick them. “It makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do?” Reagan asked. “One thing is certain in this hungry world; no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”

In his farewell address to the nation in January 1989, Reagan beautifully wove his view of free trade and immigration into his vision of a free society: “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Compare Reagan’s hopeful, expansive, and inclusive view of America with the dour, crabbed, and exclusive view that characterizes certain conservatives who would claim his mantle. Their view of the world could not be more alien to the spirit of Ronald Reagan.

Dan Griswold is associate director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.