Zakaria: Reagan's Lessons for the GOP on Immigration

In 1989, Ronald Reagan made his farewell address to the American people and summed up his view of the United States. "I've spoken of the shining city all my political life," he said, "but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. [I]n 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." Today, all the Republican Party can talk about are walls, fences, border guards and attack dogs.

"But that was about legal immigration," Republicans today will claim. "Our complaints are about illegal aliens." Actually Reagan addressed the issue of illegals directly and with surprising candor. In a radio address in 1977, he observed 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."

The facts incidentally confirm Reagan's view. The six states that get the largest inflow of illegal immigrants—New York, California, Illinois, Texas, Florida and Arizona—have unusually low unemployment rates. With the exception of California and Illinois, they are all lower than the already-low national average of 4.5 percent (last month). As for the argument that immigrants depress the wages of native-born Americans, the best new research on this topic—by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber—demonstrates that unskilled immigrants complement rather than replace native Americans in the labor force, doing jobs that native Americans will not.

The compromise immigration bill worked out in the Senate by Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kyl is imperfect. But in broad terms it solves many of the problems with the current immigration system and, in Kennedy's words, "brings millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America." It does what legislation in a large and diverse country should do—makes trade-offs, compromises and accommodations to actually get something done. The requirements for illegal immigrants are so arduous that many might stay hidden and the guest-worker program is so complicated that it might be unworkable. But these features could be fixed and the proposal does move this important issue forward.

And yet, it faces a barrage of criticism on the right from those who seem to reject any solution to immigration that does not deport 12 million people. Anything else they call amnesty. The term amnesty comes from the 1986 immigration bill, supported and signed by Ronald Reagan, which gave many illegal immigrants in the United States immediate permanent residency—green cards—with few requirements, a tiny fee and a fast-tracked application process. The current proposal would allow illegal immigrants to apply for a green card after a minimum of eight years, the payment of large fines and fees and proof of clean records and good employment history. To call this amnesty is to reveal that no compromise will ever be acceptable.

More startling than the transformation of the Republican Party has been the cowardice of its presidential candidates. Four of the men running for the Republican nomination—John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Sam Brownback—had sensible views on immigration. All supported the original Kennedy-McCain bill, which was a much more intelligent and also more liberal piece of legislation than the current proposal. Apart from McCain, all have now backtracked in various ways. It isn't just the politicians who are AWOL. The Weekly Standard had been a lone voice for immigration reform on the right. But it has been strangely silent of late, not having run an editorial on the topic for one year, a year during which immigration has been a burning issue. The Republican Party today is filled with what Winston Churchill called "boneless wonders."

There are legitimate concerns about illegal immigration and about the need for assimilation especially among Mexican immigrants. But it is also true that beneath the current wave of protests lies a familiar fear. In 1996 Rudy Giuliani clearly identified it: "The anti-immigration issue that's now sweeping the country in my view is no different than the movements that swept the country in the past," he said. "You look back at the Chinese Exclusionary Act, or the Know-Nothing movement—these were movements that encouraged Americans to fear foreigners, to fear something that is different, and to stop immigration." He was right then. But the Republican Party he wants to lead is becoming the modern incarnation of the Know-Nothings.

Join the Discussion