Published December 04, 2011
Fiscal conservatism, free trade, individual liberty, a strong national defense, and traditional family values are at the heart of the Republican and conservative platforms. That is why Marco Rubio, freshman Republican senator from Florida, and Newt Gingrich are calling for a more lenient immigration policy in line with those principles.
Newt said in the most recent Republican debate, "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families."
Many conservatives are looking toward Rubio and Gingrich to supply a principled conservative argument for expanding and reforming immigration, but they should look no further than Ronald Reagan.
In late November 1990, Republicans and Democrats came together and supported the Immigration Act of 1990 that increased legal immigration.
But that law didn't form in an ideological vacuum. It followed more than a decade of conservative rhetoric favoring immigration. Like the tax revolts that swept conservative ideology into the mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, it started in California and culminated in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
You wouldn't know it by listening to conservatives today, but Reagan supported open immigration for decades. In a speech in 1952 he said, "[A]ny person with the courage, with the desire to tear up his roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange land and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here." He also derided fears about unauthorized immigration as the "illegal alien fuss," and said that, "no regulation of law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters."
In his speech announcing his candidacy for president in November 1979, Reagan stated that he wanted free movement of labor for all of North America. In his farewell address, he said of the Shining City Upon a Hill that is the United States, "[I]f there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw, and see it still." That's a far cry from the deport everyone, man the border with machine guns, and end all legal immigration that many anti-illegal immigration groups want.
Reagan's views on immigration and other issues emerged from the ideological furnace of California's Republican Party. California's Proposition 13, which lowered and reformed property taxes, is the most remembered example that has stuck with the Republican Party.
Unfortunately, Reagan's enthusiasm for increasing legal immigration has been brushed aside.
Now, California conservatives are emerging to challenge the establishment and revive Regan's position on immigration. Robert Loewen, the president of the Orange County Lincoln Club recently said, "[I]mproving the flow of legal immigration based on businesses' demand would ease the flow of illegal immigration considerably, making border security easier and cheaper to manage." His statement is reminiscent of those supporting famed Proposition 13,
He went on, "[W]e do believe that conservatives have a unique opportunity to lead on this issue by making market forces work for us, instead of trying to stifle them." Indeed, immigration restrictions were largely supported by anti-capitalist progressives, Democrats, and labor unions in the early 20th century, and, as Loewen says, "[A]ll too often, Republicans have fallen into their trap by either remaining silent about real solutions and/or adopting harsh rhetoric and aggressive measures to enforce flawed immigration laws that were enacted by Democrats in the first place." Amen.
If anyone has good reason to revive America's proud tradition of open immigration, it is California Republicans and conservatives, who have been politically stung by their party's harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Pete Wilson won the 1990 gubernatorial election in California with 53% of the white vote, 47% of the Hispanic vote, and 58% of the Asian vote.
But support for Republicans among ethnic minorities plummeted after Wilson focused his 1994 reelection campaign on blaming all of the state's woes on immigrants, mostly Hispanics. Wilson may have carefully chosen his words to target "illegal" immigrants, but many of his supporters were not so specific.
Since then, the share of the Asian and Hispanic vote for Republicans in California has plummeted and given Democrats a lock on the legislature.
The California GOP was decimated as a result of its harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric-which, ironically, is directly opposed to Reagan's statements on immigration.
California's Asian and Hispanic populations are rapidly growing. Now many California Republicans recognize that their party's future depends on not alienating these fast-growing ethnic groups and instead attracting them with principled conservative ideas that eschew nativism.
The Orange County Lincoln Club, in the reddest part of blue California, is taking an ideological stand that could rejuvenate the Grand Old Party.
Republicans and conservatives across the country should take notice.
Republicans and conservatives searching for a new way forward on immigration should take a lead from the Orange County Lincoln Club and Ronald Reagan to support a return to America's traditional welcoming, open, and conservative immigration policy.
Alex Nowrasteh is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.