Republicans are using tough language in the current immigration debate. They speak of the threats and dangers posed by those in the U.S. illegally. Their words largely echo those of President Trump in warning that immigrants steal jobs from Americans and drag down the standard of living.
A blunt Trump campaign ad released during the recent government shutdown accused Democrats of being “complicit in all murders by illegal immigrants.”
But it wasn’t always so. For decades, leading figures in the GOP went out of their way to sound a compassionate note when it came to immigration policy. In recent years that rhetoric fell out of line with where the Republican base was, giving Trump the opportunity of a lifetime in 2016.
Reagan opposed “putting up a fence”
Even in the age of Trump, Ronald Reagan remains the iconic conservative standard bearer for many in the party.
At a 1980 GOP presidential debate in Houston, Texas, Reagan spoke of Mexico as “our neighbor to the south.” He added, “We should have a better understanding and better relationship than we’ve ever had.” And as he continued, Reagan sounded a lot like he was weighing in on today’s immigration debate.
“Rather than talking about putting up a fence,” the future president said. “Why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?” It’s the kind of line you might hear from just about any Democratic senator in 2018.
On the stage debating him that day was another 1980 GOP presidential hopeful and future president, George H.W. Bush. He was asked by an audience member if children in the country illegally should be allowed to attend U.S. public schools.
Bush didn’t hesitate, saying he doesn’t want to see 6- or 8-year-olds being uneducated or “made to feel that they’re living outside the law.”
Reagan eventually signed a major immigration law that toughened border security, but offered amnesty to immigrants in the country illegally who entered before 1982.
The “compassionate conservative”
A couple of decades later, the presidency of George W. Bush brought another major push for immigration overhaul. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer notes that the 43rd president’s campaign slogan of “compassionate conservatism” applied to immigration.
Fleischer says that because Bush had been governor of Texas, he had a realistic view of who was coming across the border. “As a border governor, he had a personal understanding and a personal relationship with many of the immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande and came to Texas for work and liberty and for America’s opportunity,” Fleischer said.
Bush proposed changes to U.S. immigration law at an event at the White House in January 2004 that would make it easier for people to cross back and forth over the border to work legally in the United States. Bush described the problems he saw brought about by existing law. “Many undocumented workers walked mile after mile, through heat of day and cold of the night. Some have risked their lives in dangerous desert border crossings,” Bush said. “Workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life.”
Trump harnesses the GOP base
Over the past decade, though, a very different discussion of immigration has taken hold within the GOP, eventually building to the launch of Trump’s presidential campaign in June 2015.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said that day at Trump Tower. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we’re getting.”
Pair that with the “Build the Wall, Build the Wall” chanting by the candidate and the crowds at Trump rallies both before and after his election, and you get a pretty good distillation of how Trump’s immigration rhetoric has tracked with the GOP base.
“Donald Trump talks about immigration in a way that’s very different from how George Bush talks about it, or Mitt Romney talks about it, or John McCain talked about it,” Fleischer said. “But it’s also true that Donald Trump won the election.”
So far, such talk has worked with Trump’s hard core supporters. What it means in terms of getting what he wants from Congress, or down the road at the ballot box, remains to be seen.
Key, according to Fleischer, is how working-class voters look at the issue.
“Frankly, I think the biggest change was the economy weakened,” he said. “People in America were worried about their jobs and their livelihood, and they did worry about a surge of people coming through illegally, a lower-priced labor force that would squeeze Americans.”
Economists say what drives wages goes way beyond immigration, but such worries gave the topic more potency than it previously had within the GOP.
But Mark Krikorian, an advocate for less immigration at the Washington, D.C., think tank Center for Immigration Studies, has a his own theory. He doesn’t think attitudes toward immigration have changed much at all among Republican voters. He thinks it’s a case of past leaders simply being out of touch with where the party rank and file were on the issue.
“Ordinary Republican voters were just much more hawkish on immigration than Republican politicians and advisers and fixers and donors and the whole political class,” Krikorian said.
Conservative voters were strong enough to prevent passage of immigration legislation pushed by President George W. Bush, whose support among Hispanics reached 40 percent in the 2004 election, a high for the GOP.
In 2013, conservatives in the House blocked an immigration bill that had passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. It came as the Republican Party was looking for ways to appeal to Hispanic voters following Mitt Romney’s loss as the GOP presidential nominee in 2012.
In 2016, Krikorian said Trump recognized an opening: “He took advantage of that gap between what the actual voters wanted and what the political class was offering.”
There were other early signs of how the issue would play within GOP politics. In 2010, Marco Rubio won a Senate seat from Florida after successfully wooing support from the rising Tea Party movement. Once elected, Rubio — the son of Cuban immigrants — began working on the 2013 immigration legislation with a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight.”
He was immediately shunned — and jeered in some cases — by Tea Party conservatives who once saw him as the future. Rubio ran for president in 2016, but never seriously threatened Trump’s chances, as the eventual nominee made the immigration issue his own.
All of this is taking place as the United States becomes a more diverse nation, with Hispanics the fastest growing minority population in the country. In fact, the U.S. is on track to be a majority-minority nation by the year 2044, according to the U.S Census Bureau.
It was former President Barack Obama’s back-to-back election victories in 2008 and 2012 that prompted a great deal of soul-searching within the Republican Party about immigration and about appealing to minority voters more broadly.
Part of the proposed solution was to speak compassionately about the issue of immigration. Here’s how former George W. Bush adviser Karen Hughes put it in an opinion piece published by Politico:
“The immigration rhetoric that came out of the Republican primary seemed harsh, unwelcoming and offputting to many minority voters. Obama increased his share of the Hispanic vote and won it 69 percent to 29 percent (per The New York Times exit poll); likewise he built a huge margin among Asian voters, 74-25, almost doubling the margin of his support compared to 2008. Both of those constituencies are hardworking, upwardly mobile, family-oriented, and should be open to Republican appeals if we don’t make them feel unwelcome.”
Trump’s election in 2016 seems to have put such sentiment on hold indefinitely for the GOP.
Now Congress is tackling immigration once again. This time it appears there will be some kind of legislation passed. It may include some resolution for many of the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
What’s different this time is that many Republicans lawmakers have closed that gap with the GOP base. Any immigration legislation that passes will likely not be in line with what Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush once supported, but by virtue of being something President Trump supports likely would have the approval of his base.