Immigration — what would Reagan do and should it matter?

My friend Peter Robinson has argued that Ronald Reagan would have disapproved of a campaign ad by John McCain regarding illegal immigration. The ad in question is the one in which McCain says “complete the danged fence.”
Usually, appeals to the putative views of great historical figures — Why Madison would support Cap and Trade or Why Lincoln would be a Democrat today — are the lowest form of argument. Such appeals attempt to substitute imaginary authority for serious analysis. As John Hinderaker once said to me of another Dartmouth student, “it’s bad enough to hold these views without attributing them to great thinkers.”
Peter’s column is an exception to this rule. For Reagan has a record on immigration from which one can make reasonable inferences about how he would view the current debate. And, naturally, Peter extrapolates in good faith from that record.
The problem, though, is that Reagan’s record on immigration is a poor one. He signed legislation in 1986 that granted amnesty to millions of illegal aliens but also included provisions to prevent future illegal immigration. Predictably, the grant of amnesty “succeeded” while the preventative measures turned out to be a joke. Given this record, it’s not clear why we should look to Reagan for guidance on immigration issues except perhaps as a reverse barometer.
Peter, of course, is aware of this problem. He responds to it in part by quoting Ed Meese, who says that “the government didn’t do what was necessary to support the enforcement in the ’86 actl.” This unsurprising fact raises the most important “what would Reagan do” question: What would Reagan have learned from the failure of the 1986 legislation?
Peter concludes, again fair-mindedly, that Reagan would insist this time that the federal government enforce existing immigration laws before enacting new statutes that grant amnesty. Thus, though Reagan would have been “inclined” to support President Bush’s 2006 immigration reform proposal, he would not actually have supported it. And he would have “concurred, reluctantly” with McCain’s insistence that we complete the fence.
What, then, is Peter’s beef with McCain, who did support the 2006 legislation, but now thinks we should enforce the immigration laws, and complete the fence, before considering new laws? The quarrel is primarily about tone, I think. The ad in question includes a sheriff telling the Senator that he is “one of us.” Peter finds, quite reasonably, that these words are “likely to alienate every Hispanic voter who hears them.” And Peter is certain that Reagan, whose landslide victories were built on voters of German, Irish, Italian, and Polish descent, would never have said such a thing, especially given the rapidly expanding influence of the Hispanic vote.
Again, Peter is probably right on this specific point. But here’s a more general “what would Reagan do” question: To what extent would Reagan have sacrificed conservative principles to appeal to Hispanic voters? Keep in mind that the descendants of immigrants to whom Reagan appealed had already made it in America. Thus, they were not special pleaders; rather they were highly invested in the conservative arrangements and values that Reagan promoted so forcefully.
This is not true of Hispanic voters as a class, and it will become less true if the ranks of that class are swelled as the result of changes in the immigration law such as those proposed in 2006. Would Reagan believe that Republicans can successfully appeal for the votes of members of an underclass through his traditional conservative message?
Perhaps. Reagan was a great optimist. But my view is that Republicans cannot expect to win that vote without engaging in a bidding war in which the bids consist in part of supporting decidedly non-conservative statist measures.

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