Ronald Reagan: No Conservative On Immigration

Published on October 18th, 2011

By Joe Guzzardi
September 8, 2011

Following last night’s Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, two candidates appear to have emerged as favorites: Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The others—Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Michele Bachman—have flaws they probably can’t overcome. They’re considered too familiar, too unfamiliar or too risky.

Despite the certainty that immigration will be a major topic as the campaigning drags on and will eventually play a pivotal role in the 2012 election, the issue got surprisingly little attention. The few softball questions moderators asked got the predictably elusive answers.

Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart, however, made this interesting comment: “I want to talk about a subject that was very dear to the heart of President Reagan which is immigration reform. As you know, he was the last U.S. President to sign immigration reform in 1986.”

Diaz-Balert, whose brother Lincoln is a Republican Florida Congressmen, tried to force the candidates into compromising their immigration positions. What Diaz-Balart should have done instead is point out that Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act represented the beginning of the end for future GOP candidates who presume they can support immigration but still win at the polling booth.

The reverse is true. Immigration advocacy is an albatross for the GOP. When Republicans promote higher immigration levels, they alienate their base. To be sure, George W. Bush served eight years in the White House. But he spent more than seven of them using every available White House tool to pass a comprehensive immigration reform amnesty.

Instead of advocating for this so-called reform, Republicans need to campaign on immigration enforcement and point to Reagan’s amnesty as Exhibit 1 in their argument.

Twenty five years later, IRCA the United States, and especially Reagan’s California, is still coping.

During the Congressional hearings that preceded IRCA, a few in Congress questioned what the cost of legalizing about 3 million aliens would be. Their low levels of education, limited English ability and modest job skills presented major hurdles to attaining economic independence.

As it developed, according to a 1997 Center for Immigration Studies Report titled "Measuring the Fallout: the Cost of IRCA Amnesty after Ten Years," the Congressional minority was correct. Immigration saddled local and state governments with high welfare costs.

Ironically, California—where then Governor Reagan had vigorously opposed welfare—was one of the hardest hit. Nearly 53 percent of all legalized aliens and their growing families resided in California.

Fortunately for the states, buried in the IRCA fine print was the State Legalization Impact Assistance Grants (SLIAG) program that reimbursed state and local governments for a portion of their public assistance costs.

But, SLIAG paid out merely a small percentage of the highly dependent, newly amnestied population’s financial needs. Annual federal contributions for each eligible immigrant under SLIAG worked out to $167 a year—then just a fraction of the cost to educate one child for one year in the public school system.

Through the first ten years after IRCA, federal, state and local assistance programs paid out $102.1 billion in benefits for 20 different public assistance programs. Those aggregate expenses were partially offset by total immigrant taxes paid of $78 billion. The net ten-year deficit to subsidize new immigrants was $24 billion.

Despite IRCA’s failure, most of the Republicans including those on stage last night still argue for the same “path to citizenship” that failed 25 years ago.

If Republicans can’t take advantage of previous administrations’ quarter of a century of immigration miscalculations to recapture the White House in 2012, they should find another line of work.


Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. His columns about immigration and related subjects are syndicated throughout the United States. Contact him at [email protected]

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