During the 1980 debate for the Republican nomination, both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were asked a question about immigration. Bush was the first to answer:
I’d like to see something done about the illegal alien problem that would be so sensitive, and so understanding about labor needs, and human needs, that that problem wouldn’t come up. I don’t want to see … six- and eight-year-old kids, being made, you know, one, totally uneducated, and being made to feel that they’re living outside the law. Let’s address ourselves to the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people. Part of my family is a Mexican.
That approach flies in the face of current Republican zeitgeist, and one might be tempted to think the elder Bush was an outlier in his position here. But when Reagan answers, it became clear that both of these GOP elders would be wildly out of step with the party of Trump.
Here is Reagan’s response:
Rather than making them, of 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 cross. And open the border both ways, by understanding their problems.
This wasn’t just empty rhetoric. Reagan-worshipping Republicans often overlook that, as president, their hero signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which granted citizenship to more than 3.2 million undocumented immigrants. It remains a sore spot for the build-the-wall crowd that helped propel Donald Trump to victory.
The reality is that there are real and lasting divisions on immigration in the Republican Party, and Trump’s victory has deepened the divide.
The anti-immigration thrust from the Tea party
One can trace Trump’s policy pedigree on immigration back through the Tea party wave of 2010, which many saw as a response to Obama-era excesses.
But the seeds of the Tea Party’s dissatisfaction on immigration were planted by George W. Bush, who attempted to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. He apparently enjoyed solid support from his own party before grass-roots efforts stirred up solid opposition and effectively derailed the bill.
The specter of Simpson-Mazzoli was invoked to tarnish the George W. Bush’s guest worker program: It was called a back door to amnesty. Since then, any proposed legal status for undocumented workers has received a similar label.
The current flap over Trump’s rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals reflects these stark divisions. Trump loyalists praise the decision. And yet some congressional Republicans are scrambling to find a legislative solution to secure the DACA protections in place by Barack Obama.
Solving the puzzle of competing Republican interests
With so many divisions, how congressional Republicans tackle the job on immigration remains something of a puzzle.
Mainstream business conservatives may continue to support policies reflected in the answers given by Reagan and Bush in that debate more than a generation ago. They justify their efforts by saying that the GOP needs to court the Hispanic vote if it wants to remain competitive in national elections.
Indeed, prior to the rise of Trump, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans, as the party of old, white men, were demographically doomed in an increasingly diverse country. Few anticipated that an old, white man – and barely a Republican one at that – would succeed in turning that conventional wisdom on its head.
(Photo of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush at the 1980 Republican National Convention by Dallas Morning News.)