Still the Pro‐​Immigration Party?

August 26, 1996 • Commentary
By Stephen Moore and Aaron Harris

Are Republicans poised–once again–to bolt from their historical support of legal immigration?

There are certainly distressing signs that the answer is yes. Haley Barbour recently declared that the three major themes to be drilled at the San Diego convention will be welfare (good), taxes (very good), and immigration (ughh!). The party faithful have even stopped bothering to accentuate illegal immigration as the problem. Increasingly, immigrants are portrayed as villains irrespective of whether they sneak in during the night through the Rio Grande or wait their turn and come in lawfully. Many of the pundits in the GOP leadership clearly regard immigration as political paydirt. They are no doubt inspired by the impressive showing of Pat Buchanan’s “fortress America” vision in California, where he grabbed all of 19 percent of the vote.

The immediate fight is over the immigration plank in the Republican platform. There is increasing agitation from Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas and the California delegation to rewrite the platform so it tilts in a more overtly nativist direction–to endorse reductions in the number of immigrants admitted legally. The strategy might greatly appeal to Pat Buchanan’s supporters in the party, but it is almost certain to alienate a huge portion of the pro‐​growth wing of the party that was critical to the Reagan coalition.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey has stated that “if anything, we should be thinking about increasing legal immigration.” Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett agree. The brawl that could erupt over this issue could prove to be as bruising and divisive as the abortion conflict. That’s just what the party needs now–to step squarely on another hornet’s nest.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. From the time of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency through Ronald Reagan’s, the Republicans have generally been a pro‐​immigration party. Significantly, nativist tendencies have only flourished when trade protectionism has also triumphed within the party. The two economically pernicious ideas go hand in hand. They also tend to correspond with losing elections, not winning them.

When Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, this new civil rights party stated that the GOP was “in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.” During the darkest days of the Civil War, the Republican Party was ardently in favor of a free‐​market immigration policy. The party platform of 1864 read, “[F]oreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”

By the late 1800s the GOP reversed itself and became severely restrictionist on both trade and immigration. In 1900 the party platform read, “We renew our faith in the policy of Protection to American labor. In that policy our industries have been stimulated and production cheapened. By protecting the home market competition has been stimulated and production cheapened.” And in the next paragraph was this: “In the further interest of the American workmen we favor a more effective restriction of the immigration of cheap labor from foreign lands.” Then the 1920 platform advised, “The existing policy of the United States for the practical exclusion of Asiatic immigrants is sound and should be maintained.” (Sounds like Peter Brimelow!)

In the coming years the Republicans would pass not only the restrictive immigration quota acts of 1921 and 1924 but the disastrous Smoot‐​Hawley tariff in 1930. In 1932 the party would boast that “[t]he restriction of immigration is a Republican policy” and “immigration is now less than at any time during the last 100 years.” That hostility to almost all immigration contributed to the defection of ethnic voters to the Democratic Party and to Democratic dominance of the political scene for more than a generation.

After World War II the GOP returned to its pro‐​legal immigration, anti‐​illegal immigration stance–a position it has generally held throughout the past 50 years. The Eisenhower administration, with opposition from congressional Democrats, supported the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 that allowed the admission of those fleeing the aftermath of WWII. The 1950s saw more immigrants arrive in the United States than had the 1930s and 1940s combined. “The Republican party,” stated the 1956 platform, “supports an immigration policy which is in keeping with the traditions of America as a haven for oppressed peoples.”

In 1960, that message was reasserted even more forcefully:

Immigration has been reduced to the point where it does not provide the stimulus to growth that it should, nor are we fulfilling our obligation as a haven for the oppressed. Republican conscience and Republican policy require that the annual number of immigrants we accept be at least doubled.

During the Reagan era, the platforms of 1980 and 1984 spoke of extending to immigrants the traditional hospitality of America and admitting those who were willing to make a contribution and accept the American way of life, while enforcing laws against illegal immigration. More than seven million immigrants came to the United States during the 1980s and contributed mightily to the unprecedented prosperity of that decade.

One of the most uplifting and unifying political orations in this century was Ronald Reagan’s acceptance speech at the 1980 convention in Detroit. It was a home run. Bob Dole should read it–and then reread it. The themes were freedom, opportunity and growth. Here is what Reagan said about immigration:

Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe free– Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and of Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the Freedom Fighters in Afghanistan.

About the Authors
Steve Moore is director of fiscal policy studies and Aaron Harris a research assistant at the Cato Institute.