As a continuing part of our series What Would Reagan Do, we’re going to discuss what Reagan would do to address our current immigration problems. Clearly Reagan would have been shocked by our current situation related to rampant illegal immigration, the violence across our southern border in Mexico, and the crime being brought into American cities by illegal aliens.
Addressing Reagan’s views regarding immigration is complex because he had two seemingly conflicting views. For one, Reagan believed in the integrity of the borders of the United States. This view would have been only reinforced by our current international terrorism risks in a post 9-11 world. In fact one of Reagan’s most well-known quotes is: “A nation that cannot control its borders is not a nation.”
On the other side of the coin, Reagan believed the United States was the last great hope for the world. Reagan lived the American Dream and saw that dream as a gift from God for all free people. He fully understood the desire of the masses to come to America and to assimilate into the melting pot as Americans. However Reagan didn’t have a favorable view of those who would sneak into America just to take from American society and return those gains to their home country. Immigrants becoming part of American culture was important to Ronald Reagan. He was certainly aligned with the Teddy Roosevelt quote: “No Room in This Country for Hyphenated Americans”. For those who did not intend to become citizens and integrate into American society, Reagan believed they should be permitted to be in the U.S. when it was to our advantage. Reagan stated, “No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.” If we needed foreign workers for the U.S. economy to grow, Reagan believed we should enable the controlled flow of migrant workers, even if they didn’t intend upon becoming citizens. However, this migrant worker status wouldn’t enable workers to stay in the U.S. on a more or less permanent basis.
This multiplicity of views is symbolized by one of Reagan’s actions that was the least popular with his traditional base. In 1986, Reagan invited millions of illegal aliens to become citizens through his signature legislation that granted amnesty to millions of undocumented workers. Note this legislation wasn’t an open borders law but it was actually quite the opposite. The second half of the legislation was designed to halt the flow of new illegal aliens into the States. The legislation made it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, and it also doubled the number of border control guards. In retrospect, the amnesty portion of the law was vigorously executed and the enforcement portion of the law wasn’t. Everything considered, the legislation failed to produce the desired effect and ultimately attracted an increased flow of illegal aliens into the country.
So What Would Reagan Do?
With immigration, Reagan would take actions consistent with his beliefs above while adapting his execution to mirror his willingness to learn from history. As a necessary first step, Reagan would tighten our borders. One thing he learned from the legislation in 1986, government will always execute the easy portion of laws and avoid the heavy lifting. Thus Reagan would see the need to secure the flow of illegal aliens in and out of the country as a prerequisite step in addressing the aliens already in the country. How would he do it? It would likely combine increased border guards, high technology including drones, and a border fence. Ok, it would be a wall. I have to admit, it would seem contradictory for the man who told Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall” to build an American border wall. However Reagan would see the wall as a way to secure the country by keeping illegals out rather than the East German wall which was designed to force their residents to stay. In addition, Reagan would see it as a wall with open doors. Note a quote from Reagan as part of his 1989 farewell address shows the President’s envisioning the need to control the borders of our shining city on the hill: “and 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.” Thus there would be a legal flow of people into the U.S., but illegal attempts to enter the country would be dealt with harshly.
After seeing that our border control efforts were actually working, Reagan would address the presence of undocumented workers in the U.S. Contrary to a lot of Republican leaders today, I feel Reagan would again grant amnesty to those in the country today who wanted to become citizens if they complied with the conditions listed below. Reagan would find this position unpopular with many in Congress and a lot of the voters. After all, the legislation in 1986 didn’t work! However based upon learning from the effects of 1986 legislation, Reagan would include a strict path to citizenship that would specify complying with a new streamlined immigration process, learning the basics of our Constitution, establishing a formal residence, learning English, and maintaining employment with a sponsoring company. Reagan would see these steps as necessary to become part of the American melting pot and to participate in the American Dream.
In addition, Reagan would also propose a new guest worker program to enable workers to migrate to the U.S. upon our invitation for a specified period of time. It would be an updated 21st century version of the Bracero Program that existed between the U.S. and Mexico between 1942 and 1964. Bracero is the Spanish term for manual laborer. Under that program, there were approximately 4.5 million border crossings related to workers traveling back and forth from Mexico to assist various employers with work that was not being done by U.S. citizens. In spite of its success, this program ended in 1964 due to pressure from the American labor unions. Subsequently after 1964, the U.S. saw an immediate drop in legal guest worker immigration and a spike in illegal undocumented worker migration. Reagan would see a new guest worker program as a way to bring the migrant worker economy into the light of day and to make it tougher for “coyotes” and drug smugglers to make profits through human trafficking.
I know some of you are saying, hold on; can we really afford a major influx of new citizens and guest workers? With the softening of the economy, the numbers of illegals in the U.S. is actually lower than it has been in the last two decades. In addition, by securing the borders as a precondition to addressing existing undocumented population, we would be in a better position to take steps incrementally while continually improving our national security. Again, I’m not stating that all of Reagan’s positions would be popular but rather these steps would be part of the programmatic approach he would take to improve our current immigration problems.
Well, the Gipper’s changes aren’t quite complete. Not only would we need to get ready for yet another influx of new citizens, but prepare to buy a new flag. Reagan was a strong believer in offering statehood to Puerto Rico…