GOP Candidates Betray the Spirit of Reagan on Immigration
Instead of throwing money at more enforcement, the laws need changing.

Inspecting braceros in 1956


In April 1980, when Ronald Reagan was competing in the presidential primaries, he rejected the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico: “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 open the border both ways by understanding their problems.”

If a Republican presidential candidate said such a thing today, he or she would suffer withering criticism for being soft on illegal immigration. Instead, we hear Reagan’s successors talk about implementing national ID cards, imposing intrusive regulations on the labor market, raiding farms, factories, and restaurants, and harassing small-business owners trying to survive in this tough economy, all in the name of chasing away hard-working immigrants.

In the past two decades, spending on border enforcement has skyrocketed more than six-fold, and personnel at the border five-fold. Yet the mantra of many Republicans has been to throw more money at the problem while rejecting any fundamental reform of the immigration system itself.

The predominant GOP view on immigration is not only bad policy but also bad politics. Hispanics are now the largest minority group and the fastest-growing voting bloc. Ronald Reagan understood, as did George W. Bush, that millions of Hispanics are friendly to the Republican message of entrepreneurship, opportunity, and family values. The demeaning rhetoric about unauthorized immigrant workers that emanates from the right is interpreted by many Hispanic citizens as a putdown of their culture. Republicans thus risk alienating potential Hispanic supporters, as well as more moderate non-Hispanic voters. With the long-term demographic changes already in motion, an anti-immigration Republican party will find it more and more difficult to win elections.

Spending billions more each year to enforce a fundamentally unenforceable law is not the conservative answer to illegal immigration. Immigration law needs to be changed in a way that better serves our economic needs, protects our security, and affirms our best values as a nation.

— Daniel Griswold is director of the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.