Ronald Reagan on Immigration

President of the U.S., 1981-1989; Republican Governor (CA)


1980: Illegal aliens attend public schools like citizens do

Future president George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan debated--and from the get-go, you know this is not a 2016 debate. First of all, the town-hall style question actually comes from the audience. A young Texan asks whether illegal aliens should be able to attend Texas public schools for free, as citizens do. Their answers:

BUSH: Today, I would reluctantly say they would get whatever it is, what society is giving their neighbors. But the problem has to be solved.

REAGAN: I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors--particularly our neighbor to the south--should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we've ever had. They have a problem of 40% to 50% unemployment. Now this cannot continue without the possibility arising of Cuba stirring up trouble below the border. And we could have a very hostile and strange neighbor on our border."

Source: Esquire on primary before Reagan-Carter Presidential Debate , Jan 7, 2016

1980: Work permits instead of a Mexico border fence

[In the 1980 GOP primary debate, Reagan said about Mexican illegal aliens:] "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 is the only safety valve they have right now, with that unemployment, that probably keeps the lid from blowing off...And I think we could have a fine relationship."

Work visas? Open borders? Understanding that migrant workers are responding to larger economic forces that play a defining role in where prosperity--or even a steady job--can be found? This is the kind of talk you'd expect from someone who'd grant amnesty to illegal immigrants already in the U.S., which, of course, Reagan did.

Source: Esquire on primary before Reagan-Carter Presidential Debate , Jan 7, 2016

1986 IRCA: amnesty in exchange for tough border & penalties

Rising levels of illegal immigration [led to] the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). It provided amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants, in return for increased border security and penalties for companies "knowingly" hiring illegal immigrants. Aside from creating the H-2A visa for seasonal employment, IRCA failed to create new avenues for legal immigration. The combination of amnesty and inadequate avenues for legal immigration exacerbated the problem of illegal immigration.
Source: Immigration Wars, by Jeb Bush, p.133-134 , Mar 5, 2013

Latinos are Republicans; they just don't know it yet

Republicans need not abandon or compromise their principles to attract Hispanic support--to the contrary, their best electoral strategy is to emphasize common conservative values.

Ronald Reagan once famously quipped that "Latinos are Republicans. They just don't know it yet." The Republican Party's overriding priority in the years ahead must be to expand and diversify its shrinking demographic base, embracing immigrants generally and Hispanics in particular.

Source: Immigration Wars, by Jeb Bush, p.206 , Mar 5, 2013

1986 reform legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants

We have already been burned once by false promises of border security in exchange for tying security to other aspects of the immigration debate. President Reagan, in 1986, signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized close to 3 million undocumented immigrants. The laws was supposed to be a comprehensive solution with provisions intended to clamp down on border security. These provisions were never enforced, and the subsequent explosion in illegal crossings has resulted in some 11 million illegal aliens living in the United States today. An estimated 1.8 million illegal immigrants are currently residing in Texas, compared with 1.1 million in 2000. In ten years, that represents an increase of 54 percent, or 70,000 persons each year coming to our state illegally.
Source: Fed Up!, by Gov. Rick Perry, p.120 , Nov 15, 2010

1986: One-time amnesty for illegal aliens

In 1986 I voted for the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill because we were told it would solve the problem of massive illegal immigration. In his diaries, President Ronald Reagan said he was going to sign the bill because we had to regain control of our borders. The Simpson-Mazzoli bill contained three promises:
  1. The government would make a concerted effort to control the borders.
  2. An effective employer verification program would ensure that only legal workers were hired.
  3. One-time amnesty would be granted for people illegally in the United States.
All three promises were broken. The government has made no serious effort to control our borders. Employers continue knowingly to hire illegal immigrants without any real fear of punishment.
Source: Real Change, by Newt Gingrich, p.126 , Dec 18, 2007

OpEd: 1986 "adjustment" used as basis for 2006 amnesty

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) sent a survey to congressional candidates who want an SEIU endorsement. Several questions concern immigration.

One question: "SEIU, in a coalition with employer groups, is working to update our laws. We support a legalization program that allows for adjustment of status for those workers & their families who have worked hard and steadily, paid taxes and contributed to their communities, and stayed out of trouble with law enforcement. It has been nearly 20 years since Reagan proposed a similar adjustment in 1986. It's time to do it again."

This seems to suggest that if a conservative like Reagan could pass an immigration law that involved an "adjustment," then surely dong so again would be acceptable. The "adjustment" that Reagan passed was an amnesty, a fact that SEIU carefully avoids. The idea here seems to be that illegal aliens qualify to become citizens because they have paid taxes and stayed out of trouble.

Source: Minutemen, by Jim Gilchrist & Jerome Corsi, p. 89-90 , Jul 25, 2006

Allow free movement of people from Mexico & Canada

Reagan himself was a dreamer, capable of imagining a world without trade barriers. In announcing his presidential candidacy in Nov. 1979, he had proposed a “North American accord” in which commerce & people would move freely across the borders of Canada & Mexico. This idea, largely overlooked or dismissed as a campaign gimmick in the US, rankled nationalist sensibilities in the neighboring nations. But Reagan was serious in his proposal. Though he traveled only once outside the North American continent during his first 57 years, he was neither insular nor isolationist. California has windows to the world in Asia, and Reagan thought of the US as a Pacific power as well as an Atlantic one. He also had a Californian’s consciousness of Mexico and an actor’s appreciation of Canadians, who are well-represented in the film community. The dream of a North American accord would drive the successful pursuit of a US-Canadian free trade agreement and a future-oriented “framework” trade agreement with Mexico
Source: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, p. 461 , Jul 2, 1991

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Other past presidents on Immigration: Ronald Reagan on other issues:
Former Presidents:
Barack Obama(D,2009-2017)
George W. Bush(R,2001-2009)
Bill Clinton(D,1993-2001)
George Bush Sr.(R,1989-1993)
Ronald Reagan(R,1981-1989)
Jimmy Carter(D,1977-1981)
Gerald Ford(R,1974-1977)
Richard Nixon(R,1969-1974)
Lyndon Johnson(D,1963-1969)
John F. Kennedy(D,1961-1963)
Dwight Eisenhower(R,1953-1961)
Harry S Truman(D,1945-1953)

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V.P.Joseph Biden
V.P.Dick Cheney
V.P.Al Gore
V.P.Dan Quayle
Sen.Bob Dole

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Page last updated: Feb 22, 2022