Peter Robinson has a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal suggesting that Ronald Reagan might have liked George W. Bush’s (and the old John McCain’s) style on illegal immigration better than the new McCain’s. He points to the 1986 amnesty and other examples of Reagan’s openness to immigration.
There’s no question Reagan was pro-immigration. In his 1989 farewell address to the nation, he said of the Shining City on the Hill “if 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.” But it is also worth noting that Pat Buchanan supported the 1986 amnesty. That experience chastened a lot of people. Moreover, Reagan also said that, “This country has lost control of its borders. And no country can sustain that kind of position.”
On immigration, there were things that we know now that we did not know then. Since 1970, there has been an increasing mismatch between the skill levels of the immigrants entering the United States and the U.S. labor force. This, combined with our lack of cultural self-confidence, has slowed the historic assimilation process. Some of this is due to sheer numbers. Much of it is due to the fact that the immigrants are choosing themselves: Half of the immigrants who have arrived in the last decade have come illegally; family reunification drives about 65 percent of legal immigration.
There are certainly circumstances where openness to immigration can be conservative. Reagan’s pro-immigrant sympathies were a reflection of his belief in both the greatness of America and the intrinsic value of the individual. But sentimentality about immigration without regard to the facts on the ground isn’t conservative at all. The Shining City’s interests come first.