"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally."
In a political climate where immigration reform is just one of the contentious issues of our day, one may believe this quote came from a Democratic politician. But in fact, it belongs to Republican icon Ronald Reagan. What was once an issue that belonged to Republicans, is now a political cause of the left. Despite what The Gipper believed about immigrants, today’s Republicans have a developed a mostly anti-immigrant stance. The party that once supported amnesty is now seen as the party that favors deportation. The two main causes of this shift are the GOP's perceived betrayal on border security during the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and a growing tide of ultra-conservative members in the Republican grassroots.
In Reagan's America, immigration was just as central of an issue as it is today. The Immigration Reform and Control Act was lauded by many as being a fix for illegal immigration, once and for all. It had two major components: ramped-up border security, and amnesty for immigrants who had already been living in the country. In the end, the law granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, but the enhanced border-security portion of the bill never quite came to fruition, mostly due to funding constraints. Fast-forward to 2013, where there are now an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, and it comes as no surprise that the lack of border enforcement from the 1986 law has left Republicans with a bad taste in their mouths.
Throughout debate for the Gang of Eight-sponsored Senate immigration bill, grassroots conservatives have been outspoken critics of another potential round of amnesty. Nobody within the Republican Party has felt this backlash more than Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has taken the brunt of criticism over the bill. Rubio has described the current immigration situation and legislative inaction as “defacto amnesty” and has consistently argued that avoiding the problem amounts to nothing more than a situation that weakens American’s security here at home due to the government having no intelligence on potential criminals living here illegally. The opposition to the bill, intellectually led by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), has argued against a path to citizenship, and in response to the failures of the 1986 bill has backed increased border security, more boots on the ground at the border, and a more expansive border fence. While Cruz’s position is certain to galvanize the Tea Party faithful, it is Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) who has one of the more moderate stances on the issue. He has called on Republicans to recognize that it is impossible and immoral to deport 11 million people, and that a non-citizen legal status should be granted, provided border security is guaranteed. He authored an amendment to the Gang of Eight bill that required congressional oversight of border security, and played to the civil-libertarian base in attempting to prevent a national ID card.
Electorally, this presents a major issue for the Republican Party. By taking an anti amnesty position, the Republican Party is relying on voters who have memories of the failed 1986 bill, which is an ever-shrinking portion of the electorate. The Republican Party experienced heavy backlash from Latino voters in 2012, with Mitt Romney only earning 27% of the Latino vote. Romney’s comments on immigration were difficult to overcome. His suggestion that illegal immigrants will become dissatisfied with the lack of work in the United States and eventually “self deport” became ammunition for the Obama reelection campaign, and further proof that Republican outreach leaves much to be desired.
Many speculate on what President Reagan would think about the current immigration debate were he alive today. Reagan embraced illegal immigrants and knew them to be hard-working opportunity seekers, but he also believed in secure borders. Until conservative activists felt alienated by the lack of border security, this issue was almost exclusively a Republican one, and depending on the position the national Republican Party takes, it could be again. While there will be much debate around it in the coming months, much care will be spent deciding which portions of the Rubio, Cruz, and Paul perspectives will be taken as the official Republican position.
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