"What would the Gipper do" is a question that some Republicans ask when they don't understand how, exactly, to apply Ronald Reagan's core character and worldview to the problems that America faces today. The result is a search for one or more "truths" to validate the author's speculations regarding what Reagan would have done relying on a direct extrapolation of America's circumstances in 1986, almost a quarter of a century ago, to those today.
A case in point is an unusual opinion piece for the pro-ever-more-immigration Wall Street Journal, in which Peter Robinson, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, wonders how Reagan would have responded to today's immigration debates.
The article is a somewhat muddled mélange of discrete "facts" about Reagan's views on immigration that are oddly compared somewhat awkwardly with the author's evaluations of Sen. John McCain's recent immigration views. So we learn that Reagan would have probably agreed with McCains's new "Ten-Point Border Plan," but not the campaign ad promoting it because "Reagan would have insisted in any advertisement in which he appeared, America must continue to welcome all who enter the country legally." Actually, that is not a bad starting point or basic premise for any emerging GOP policy toward immigration, and maybe as well for any fair and responsible American immigration policy.
Robinson correctly notes that, "Whereas the proportion of the population composed of Americans of northern European descent – the traditional Republican base – is steadily shrinking, the proportion composed of Hispanics is rapidly expanding. The GOP will capture the support of some large fraction of Hispanics or it will become as irrelevant as the Federalists and the Whigs."
The question is: How to do that? Robinson's Reagan contribution here is to note "That today Reagan would have wooed not only Reagan Democrats, but the children and grandchildren of immigrants who entered the country from Mexico. He would have done so as a matter of principle… he gloried in the country's basic openness to immigrants."
So he did, but for reasons that Robinson omits. It is true that, "All his political life, Ronald Reagan wooed voters outside his base. Who were Reagan Democrats who gave him landslide victories in 1980 and 1984? Voters of German, Irish, Italian, Polish and other ethnic backgrounds – in a word, the children and grandchildren of immigrants who entered the country at points such as Ellis Island."
But Reagan did not appeal to those groups on the basis of their past immigration status or their ethnicity. He appealed to them as Americans. He believed that the genius of this country was that it had found a way to transform immigrants to Americans. That was one basis of the American exceptionalism that fueled his optimism about immigration.
And how would Reagan respond to current pressures for another legalization amnesty? Robinson recalls that Reagan did sign the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that granted amnesty to "millions of illegal aliens," apparently believing that Reagan would find no difference between several million for a one-time-only initiative and eleven million for a repeat effort. He writes, "I believe, is that Reagan would have inclined toward reforms like those President George W. Bush proposed in 2006. Under these proposals, illegal immigrants who wished to remain in this country permanently would have received a long but explicit path to citizenship. Those who wished instead to return eventually to their countries of origin would have received the right to register as guest workers. Virtually all illegal immigrants would thus have been dealt with generously. Reagan would have found such a resolution satisfying. At least in principle."
So would Reagan agree to do it again for the estimated 11-12 million illegal immigrants living here now? Apparently not.
Robinson relies on Ed Meese, Reagan's Attorney General and close advisor, to explain to him that Reagan did, after all, sign a bill that increased border control personnel 50 percent and also workplace enforcement. That law made "hiring undocumented workers a crime, requiring employers to attest to their workers' legal status." Too bad, in order to comply those hiring could evade responsibility by accepting any form of documentation, fraudulent or not.
In the end, Robinson concludes Reagan would now opt for an "Enforcement First" policy. Reforms intended to normalize the status of illegal immigrants "would simply have to wait, yielding to a single imperative: restoring the rule of law." Before enacting new statues, Reagan would have insisted, the federal government must enforce those on the books. It must "regain control of borders."
Apparently in response to Meese's remedial tutorial, Robinson ventures to say that "The fate of the Immigration Reform and Control Act would have infuriated him" [Reagan] because "he never envisioned immigration as chaotic or ungoverned."
Reagan was a man who examined history and learned from it. Having been burned once by the 1986 Immigration and Control Act's failed efforts to control illegal immigration through actual and effective workplace verification procedures instead of loophole-ridden symbolic measures, it is easy to envision President Reagan giving an oval office address on legal immigrants and workplace enforcement slightly altering words he had famously applied to another problem, arms control, plagued by a decade failed policy efforts: "Welcome, but verify!"