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Immigration Reform: Channeling Ronald Reagan

Addressing the Syrian morass, forging the next federal budget, and appointing a new chairman to the Federal Reserve, President Obama has seen his second term initiative of immigration reform relegated to the back of the line.  Some Washington pundits are even betting that the issue will be pushed into next year, a chilling prospect for the President by adding Congressional election year politics into the fractious mix. 


While Democratic legislators generally favor the President's approach to immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented aliens, they are countered by tea party Republicans and other conservative legislators who are adamantly opposed to any perceived amnesty for those who entered the United States illegally over the past twenty years.   One prominent member of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Steve King (R-Iowa), recently categorized the majority of illegal aliens as "drug mules."  He went on to elaborate that for every child of illegal immigrants "who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."  His remarks led to protestors dumping cantaloupes on his Congressional doorstep as well as the offices of his supporting colleagues on Capitol Hill.  Needless to say, Republican leaders in the House quickly denounced his rhetoric.

For Republicans who covet control of the Senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016, immigration reform is becoming a millstone around the party's proverbial neck. For almost a decade now the Hispanic population of the United States has grown into the largest minority in the country, and by 2050 it will surpass 30 percent of the overall population, as projected by the U.S. Census Bureau. Conversely, the white population will have long given up its majority status.    

Hispanics, who make up the largest portion of unauthorized immigrants, are a natural constituency for the Republican Party.  The vast majority espouse family values, have strong religious affiliations, and are fervent believers in the merits of hard work.  But the single issue of immigration reform, as most recent national polls have shown, will cast most Hispanic voters against members of a party for years to come who are perceived as dead set against the naturalization of millions of immigrants who slipped through U.S. government oversight over the past two decades.     

In the midst of all the political noise, Republicans need to take stock over the repercussions of immigration reform.  And for most of them, there is no better conservative anchor in doing so than Republican icon Ronald Reagan. 

If the 40th president were alive today, he would be sorely disappointed by the turn immigration reform has taken among certain members of his Grand Old Party. 
Come January, twenty-five years will have passed since Reagan left office.  Invoke his name, and Republicans of all stripes still wax nostalgic.  And yet, the gauze of history has obscured for some legislators how Ronald Reagan brought together coalitions of diverse players and energized Americans to move his largely conservative agenda forward.  

Having served as Governor of California for eight years, Reagan knew all too well how immigrants were critical to harvesting the fields of the San Joaquin Valley and adding to the brainpower of Silicon Valley.  At the same time, however, the issue of immigration was far more profound to him than simple economics, as I personally would soon learn.

Fresh out of graduate school on the East Coast, I went to work for a hard-nosed conservative Congressman from Bakersfield, California.  Overnight I became immersed in the hard realities of labor supply and demand in Western agriculture. With an inadequate labor pool available, particularly during harvest time, foreign workers, documented or not, were welcomed in the rush to get crops to market, and that suited my Congressman just fine.  Business needed them while government often looked the other way.

On a memorable flight in 1979 from San Francisco to Fresno, I was ecstatic to find myself in a small prop plane sitting across from Ronald Reagan who would speak at the dinner I was attending that night.  Having left the Governor's mansion four years earlier, he was months away from securing the Republican nomination for president.

After finishing with pleasantries, we turned to current topics, particularly the volatile issue of immigration.  Expecting him to launch into an attack on the unlawful entry of "illegal aliens," I was taken aback when he didn't.  While he spoke strongly against government's failure to secure the border, his focus was elsewhere.  He could not help but think of the drive and passion that led people to risk everything to come to the United States.  Their motivation, he told me, was every bit as valid as that of his own Irish ancestors who had landed in America more than a hundred years earlier. He did not talk about them as scofflaws. Rather, he viewed most immigrants sympathetically given their proven family values, penchant for hard work, and genuine desire to live in freedom. He then finished his thoughts by saying that immigration reform and greater border security were critical but we could never lose sight about the "goodness of America" in dealing with the problem.

Like Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan would not effectively tackle immigration reform until his second term in office.   In the years that have passed since he signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act into law, Reagan would have cringed that government still had not effectively secured the borders.  And so, given what has transpired, what would Ronald Reagan have done today? It is not too hard to conjecture.

First, piecemeal approaches to such an overriding, fundamental problem as immigration would have been anathema to him.  He would have pushed hard on the proverbial reset button to give comprehensive immigration reform one more try and this time to get it right.   In the age of the Internet and with greater technological sophistication, not to mention measurable efforts to reinforce the borders, he would have held government and employers far more accountable. He also would have made sure that the immigration quota system truly reflected the growing needs of business and the overall economy. And, yes, in giving immigration reform one more try, he would have included a pathway to citizenship, under specific, strict conditions.  

To his Republican colleagues, he would have told them to tone down the destructive rhetoric and to take stock of their lasting personal legacies in making history. He would have reminded them, as he did in his farewell address to the nation, of how all of America's immigrants have longed to reach that "shining city on the hill."  He also would have extolled the Republican Party to embrace the ideals that launched our country in the first place and to help make things right.      

James P. Moore, Jr. is a senior advisor to the Harvey Nash Group and professor at Georgetown University.  He served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce under President Reagan.