How the Washington Post Exposé of Trump Missed the Story of How Reagan Wrecked Immigration Reform

By Jerry Kammer on January 3, 2019

During my career in newspapers, I learned the value of a good general-assignment reporter. The ability to produce a well-written story on a tight schedule has become even more valuable in the era of the internet, when the pressure to produce "content" is unrelenting.

Over the final 10 days of 2018, Washington Post reporter Katie Mettler provided several examples of such reporting across a broad spectrum of subject matters. She wrote not only about the government shutdown, the boorish behavior of comedian Louis C.K., and the developments that made 2018 "another year of the woman in politics", but also about President Trump's distortion of Ronald Reagan's views on immigration policy.

Mettler's immigration story was an attempt to set the record straight. It was authoritatively headlined: "What Ronald Reagan actually said about border security — according to history, not President Trump". She clearly is a talented reporter with a great future in journalism.

But her story illustrates something else I learned during my reporting career. Some issues — for example: financial regulation, nuclear proliferation, astrophysics, and immigration — are so devilishly complex that they should be kept in the hands of beat reporters who have the expertise and the time to handle them well. They can be expected to provide the context, perspective, and nuance that a complicated story requires.

The thrust of Mettler's piece — which the Post rightly presented as an "analysis" rather than a straight news story — was that President Trump had gotten it all wrong with the early-morning tweet in which he contended, "Even President Ronald Reagan tried for 8 years to build a Border Wall, or Fence, and was unable to do so."

Mettler began building her case by quoting a Reagan statement during the 1980 presidential campaign that illustrated his laissez faire, small-government preferences regarding regulation of business in general and labor markets in particular. Said Reagan, "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."

But Mettler goes on to note that in 1986, during his second term, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). That landmark legislation was a compromise between those who defended illegal immigrants and those who demanded that they be stopped. It was billed as both compassionate in providing amnesty for those who had lived in the United States for at least five years and firm in its provisions to stop future illegal immigration by sanctioning employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers.

Mettler gives the impression that Reagan, as the chief of the executive branch, was committed to enforcing the laws that required employers to verify that workers were authorized. She notes that when Reagan signed the legislation he declared: "Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people — American citizenship."

That was certainly one of Reagan's least prescient statements as president. It was also one of his most disingenuous. It belies the fact that Reagan was never committed to the worksite regulation that was essential to the effort to control the border. Reagan was a small-government conservative and a frequent critic of just the sort of regulation that was a linchpin of the 1986 immigration reform.

Indeed, Reagan showed his fealty to the California agribusiness interests that — in concert with Mexican-American congressmen — led the effort to ensure the failure of IRCA's procedures for verifying that a worker was not an illegal immigrant. The power of the California growers was legendary. During the congressional debate that preceded passage of IRCA, an exasperated Rep. John Bryant (D-Texas) asked, "The question today is: How much are we going to do for the California growers."

Reagan did a great deal for California growers by letting IRCA enforcement die from neglect. He was never committed to the control that IRCA promised and that he so enthusiastically endorsed at the signing ceremony. His performance illustrated conservative writer David Frum's observation that "the most dangerous legacy Reagan bequeathed to his party was his legacy of cheerful indifference to detail."

Some Reagan critics were more blunt. In his book Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Immigration Reform, Nicholas Laham concluded that the White House understood that IRCA's provisions for identifying and stopping unauthorized workers would be ineffective. He wrote that the weak worksite verification measures "allowed Reagan to have it both ways, satisfying the public's demand for federal action against illegal immigration without violating the president's philosophical commitment to limited government in the process."

It is understandable Mettler's piece, which drew heavily on digital archives available from the Reagan library, shows no understanding of such influences on the former California governor. Nor should anyone expect a young reporter, even one as talented as Mettler, to understand after a few days of reporting what historian Otis Graham understood after careful study. "Immigration reform was not a Reagan sort of issue," wrote Graham, a liberal restrictionist who, unlike Reagan, was concerned about illegal immigration's effects on American workers.

But immigration clearly is a Trump sort of issue. He built his campaign on it. He became president because of it. He inflamed his base with reprehensible insults of Mexican immigrants. He thrilled struggling members of the white working class by accusing liberal and conservative elites of selling them out. And, yes, he has indeed distorted the border-security views of Ronald Reagan.

Trump's insistence on a wall is not only a sad example of pandering to his base. It is also a waste of resources that would be more effectively applied to worksite enforcement. But let's give the man credit for this: He is far more consistent in his efforts to control immigration than Ronald Reagan, who truly did want to have it both ways.

At the White House signing ceremony in 1986, Reagan acknowledged that worksite enforcement was "the keystone and major element" of IRCA's commitment to stop illegal immigration. Thereafter, Reagan consistently undermined that commitment. You don't have be a fan of President Trump — and I certainly am not — to give him credit for a consistency that eluded Ronald Reagan. How ironic that Reagan's inconsistency — which might also be described as amiable duplicity — made him a folk hero to today's defenders of illegal immigration.

And how astonishing that many Democrats seem not to understand that unless they acknowledge the working-class concerns to which Trump is so attuned, they may spawn another historic failure in the elections of 2020.