Reagan And Bush In The Days When The GOP Had A Sane Immigration Policy

As Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush remind us, there was a time when Republicans weren't xenophobic nationalists when it comes to immigration policy.

Under Donald Trump, the Republican Party has come to stand as the party opposed to immigration reform and, indeed, seemingly opposed to immigration altogether. This isn’t actually something that just arose in the past two years, of course. It began at least back during the Bush 43 Administration when Republicans, and particularly conservatives, were instrumental in blocking immigration reform. That trend continued under the Obama Presidency when, except for a handful of Senators an Congressman, Republicans refused to even consider the possibility of comprehensive reform. Under Trump, of course, that has come to include support for the President’s border wall, opposition to programs such as Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) as well as opposition to any reform that includes so-called “amnesty” for people in the country illegal.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. There was a time when Republicans and conservatives were pro-immigrant and indeed competed against each other to prove their bona fides regarding who was the most pro-immigrant. Perhaps the best example of that can be seen in a 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and his eventual Vice-President George H.W. Bush who, at the time, were competing against each other for the Republican Presidential nomination:

A Republican primary debate clip from the 1980 presidential campaign resurfaced this week, and it sounds completely different from the GOP of 2019.

In the footage, future presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush spoke with sympathy about the plight of undocumented immigrants and offered ways to welcome them. Reagan even slapped down the idea of a border fence and said he’d like to “open the border both ways” while Bush praised the undocumented as “honorable, decent, family-loving people.”

Reagan would go on to defeat Bush in the primaries and become America’s 40th president. Bush would serve as Reagan’s vice president, then become the commander-in-chief in 1989.

During the debate, a member of the audience asked the candidates about undocumented immigrants attending U.S. public schools. Bush said he wanted a solution “so sensitive and so understanding” to both labor needs and human needs. He also said “reluctantly” that anyone in the country should get “whatever it is that their society is giving to their neighbors.”

Bush also became emotional over the notion of an undocumented child who may not be able to attend school.

“These are good people, strong people,” Bush said. “Part of my family is Mexican.” 

Reagan called for a “better understanding and better relationship” with neighbors such as Mexico.

“I think that we haven’t been sensitive enough to our size and our power,” Reagan said,

Reagan went on to say:

“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they’re working and earning here they pay taxes here? And when they want to go back, they can go back, and they can cross. And open the border both ways by understanding their problems.”

You can watch the full video of this segment of this debate at C-SPAN, or via the copy I have embedded below:

What a difference nearly forty years makes. Based just on these comments on immigration, neither Reagan nor Bush would be welcome in what has become Donald Trump’s Party. That says more about the Republican Party than it does about either the 40th or 41st President, and none of it is good.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Donald Trump, Politicians, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. It worth noting that in the Cold War it was politically advantageous for the US to show how people wanted into the United States as opposed to those who were willing to risk death to leave the USSR/eastern Europe. I think that informed the politics of the moment quite a lot.

    This is not to discount the basic thesis of your post. It is just something I think of every time I see this clip.

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  2. And without a doubt, the party has shifted in a truly nationalistic direction. Reagan and Bush 41 (and 43) were definitely “globalists” from a Steve Bannon POV.

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  3. Heck, Clinton may have been NAFTA’s midwife, but Bush was its father and Reagan its grandfather.

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  4. Modulo Myself says:

    Reagan and Bush supported genocide in Central America…these were not people who had a sane policy about Guatemala and El Salvador, and the War on Drugs was not exactly sane for Mexico. Rather, I think it’s that words like ‘understanding’ did not represent dark things for certain Americans, whereas now ‘understanding’ has become a dirty word. You have to understand women, minorities, gay people, your children, spouses, pets, neighbors, etc. And if you start understanding them, you might understand that they’re right about you. If you have zero confidence and no self-awareness and your world is hate, fear, and constant propaganda, understanding is a threat to everything.

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    In the days of Reagan and Bush the GOP had any number of policies that were sane. One could disagree, but somewhere there was the opportunity for a compromise.

  6. @Modulo Myself: I would not want to use the word “genocide” but you are not wrong that a substantial contributor to what we are seeing from Central America at the moment was shaped by policies in the Reagan and Bush administrations (although it goes back further than that).

    The War on Drugs as we understand it is mostly a Reagan Era creation (although the term dates to Nixon) and Cold War policies in the CA were very much driven by Reagan.

  7. reid says:

    The GOP’s platform: ignorance, lies, bigotry, xenophobia, cultism, corruption, no dissent, no taxes, no abortions, no restrictions on guns, bloated military, and no government services. Does that about sum it up? Who wouldn’t be proud to be a member?

  8. Kylopod says:

    I think a major predecessor to the current nationalist right was the candidacy of Pat Buchanan in the ’90s. The first time he ran, in 1992, it was mainly seen as a protest against Bush the Elder’s tax increases. But as he continued to be a major figure in conservative politics throughout the decade, he forged an ideology that was essentially Trumpism before Trump, and it involved blaming the country’s problems on competition from (mostly nonwhite) foreigners through lax immigration and free-trade policies.

    Ironically, Trump himself ran for the Reform Party nomination in 2000 by explicitly attacking Buchanan as a nativist bigot.

  9. Paul L. says:
  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Paul L.:
    Daily Caller…LMFAO.
    Explains so much about your comments.

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  11. @Steven L. Taylor:

    It worth noting that in the Cold War it was politically advantageous for the US to show how people wanted into the United States as opposed to those who were willing to risk death to leave the USSR/eastern Europe. I think that informed the politics of the moment quite a lot.

    This is something that never occurred to me, but it is an excellent point. It’s similar to the idea that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, in part, because the Soviet Union used segregation as a propaganda tool against us. Also why South Africa, under apartheid, was sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

  12. Sleeping Dog says:
  13. Modulo Myself says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Reagan’s buddy Rios Montt was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, so I think the word is usable. I would add that total ignorance of American actions is a huge part of the darkness which has spawned modern Republicans.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Under Donald Trump, the Republican Party has come to stand as the party opposed to immigration reform and, indeed, seemingly opposed to immigration altogether.

    I feel the need to correct this. They are altogether opposed to immigration by those people, you know, people from “shithole” countries? The people with the drive and the courage to make sacrifices we can’t imagine just for a chance to work hard at building a better life? Yeah those people.

    The ones they are willing to accept are people who either have no need to immigrate having already made a butt load of money in their current country or probably very little desire to immigrate here because it could very well be considered a step down from their current country (ie any country in Europe with a leader not named trump, putin, erdogan, etc.)

  15. @Modulo Myself: Genocide is just an especially loaded word–and is the kind of word that cause people to ignore gross injustice because it doesn’t quite live up to their view of “genocide.”

  16. @OzarkHillbilly: I would also note that GOP has been problematic on reasonable immigration reform well before Trump. This started over a decade ago.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Genocide is indeed a loaded and misused word, along with weapon of mass destruction and mass shooting. Per WIKI some 7000 Ixil Maya were killed over a few years, 1771 deaths were charged against Montt. The legal charge was genocide, but out of a population of 95000, more decimation. Another misused word. Although their intent may have been geniuses.

    Not disagreeing, satisfying my own curiosity and bemoaning misuse of language.

  18. Gustavo says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And without a doubt, the party has shifted in a truly nationalistic direction. Reagan and Bush 41 (and 43) were definitely “globalists” from a Steve Bannon POV.

    Jews?

    There are some euphemisms that will never be reclaimed, and I have no doubt that Steve Brannon knows this and uses it deliberately, both for the literal meaning as well as an anti-Semitic slur to get the Neón-Nazis* to stand at attention, all while being defensible (its just the opposite of internationalist, after all), and triggering the libs.

    I suppose it’s just a matter of time before someone manages to get some endangered species of monkey to infest their porch, so they can go on about the government literally giving handouts to porch monkeys. (I offer this idea, mostly hoping that anyone who tries to implement it gets rabies)

    ——
    *: well, that’s an insane autocorrect, but I’m going to leave it.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The ones they are willing to accept are people who either have no need to immigrate having already made a butt load of money in their current country or probably very little desire to immigrate here because it could very well be considered a step down from their current country (ie any country in Europe with a leader not named trump, putin, erdogan, etc.)

    After Britain finishes shitting the bed with Brexit, we might get a bunch of immigrants from there.

  20. Gustopher says:

    @Paul L.:

    Might have something to do with the Club for Growth Republicans and Democrats lied about stronger enforcement measures, such as employer sanctions for those who hire illegal immigrants in exchange for amenity of 2.7 million Illegal Aliens.

    It’s pretty much a given on the left that the reason we don’t have stronger enforcement against employers is because of the Republicans. If the right is now blaming the left, it’s possible that we are now ready to get a few narrow bills through Congress that will increase penalties against employers and will increase funding for that enforcement. Not as part of a comprehensive immigration reform with poison pills for each side attached, but as a stand-alone measure.

  21. Kylopod says:

    @Gustavo:

    Jews?

    It can mean Jews, and it can mean “controlled by Jews.” The word neocon is sometimes used that way also, depending on who’s using it.

  22. just nutha says:

    But those were the days when Republicans agreed with Roger Ailes who, IIRC, is credited with saying

    We need an immigration policy because I don’t want my children picking tomatoes or changing sheets in a casino for a living.

    Different time altogether, but the what I want/what can government do for me attitude never changes.

  23. just nutha says:

    @Kylopod:

    Ironically, Trump himself ran for the Reform Party nomination in 2000 by explicitly attacking Buchanan as a nativist bigot.

    They’re only words and can only mean what we tell them to and when we tell them to. It’s not like they have any lasting value or anything.

  24. R.Dave says:

    As Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush remind us, there was a time when Republicans weren’t xenophobic nationalists when it comes to immigration policy.

    True, but part of the problem is that liberals called them xenophobic nationalists anyway, which reduced the political upside to pursuing a moderate course and increased the incentive to just lean into the label. It’s more or less the mirror image of Democrats and the new resurgence of socialism – for decades, the Republicans have been calling even moderate Democratic policies big government socialism, so the term eventually lost its sting and encouraged Dems to just embrace their left wing instead of continuing to marginalize it. In short, the logic is: “if you’re gonna do the time, you might as well do the crime.”

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @R.Dave: I don’t recall anyone calling Reagan or HW, or for that matter W, xenophobic nationalists. There was concern about Reagan and racism because he applied the southern strategy, but xenophobic nationalist?

    And why are we all saying “nationalist” when what we mean is ethno-nationalist?

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: For certain. I well remember how far the last non racist Republican President’s immigration reform plan got.

    @Gustopher: Yeah, I could’ve added boris to the list but he’s not PM yet. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.