Twenty-Five Years After Reagan’s ‘Amnesty’ Bill, Conservatives Should Support Increased Immigration


Twenty-five years ago, the Immigration Reform and Control Act became law. Most people know the act as the 1986 “amnesty” bill. 

Since then, conservative rhetoric about an “invasion” and the “taking” of American jobs by immigrants has escalated. This rhetoric is not only wrong, but contrary to conservative principles and deadly to long-run Republican political prospects.

If conservatives want to emulate the conservatism of Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party and avoid getting electorally pummeled in immigrant heavy states, they should support expanding legal immigration.

Democrats got 69 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008 but that growing demographic’s enthusiasm is wavering. Today, the Democrats are in serious electoral trouble as they struggle with a still-sputtering economy, unemployment around 9 percent, and unpopular legislation from the stimulus to ObamaCare. 

Republicans could enhance their prospects with Hispanics by changing their tone on immigration. For instance, the Texas Republican Party routinely gets 40 percent of the Hispanic vote because it refrains from demonizing Hispanics.

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey made this point better than anybody. “Who in the Republican Party was the genius that said that now that we have identified the fastest-growing voting demographic in America, let’s go out and alienate them?”

Many states in the Southwest are either solidly Republican or competitive. If Republicans make the same mistakes that the California Republican Party made in the mid-1990s of demonizing immigrants, then the GOP’s days in these states will be numbered. As California Republican businessman Ron Unz notes, Republicans do not gain many votes by being rabidly anti-immigrant and the few that they gain don’t last for more than a few election cycles. But immigrants spurned by the GOP rarely return to the party.

Best of all for Republicans, a pro-immigration platform would open up political opportunities in major cities where Democrats have long had an edge. Some immigrants in Los Angeles, for example, might actually listen to what Republicans have to say on other issues instead of discounting them outright.

In a recent poll, 41 percent of American Hispanics feared a deportation action against a friend or family member. Family values-oriented conservatives should understand that no matter a person’s politics, he will do anything to defend his family. That means that most people would forsake every other political opinion they have and oppose the political party that promises to deport their grandmother, father, sibling, or best friend.

Conservatives traditionally oppose excessive government economic regulation. They should take a principled stand against anti-immigration measures like E-Verify and a national biometric ID card that would put enormous burdens on businesses—especially small businesses. Enforcement first immigration laws should be relabeled government first – because they hand more power and control to all levels of Leviathan.

Conservatives know that entrepreneurship improves standards of living. Immigrants are more than twice as entrepreneurial as native-born Americans, according to the Kauffmann Foundation’s Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. That advantage lasts several generations, as demonstrated by the fact that Americans with a Latino ancestry retain an entrepreneurial enthusiasm greater than that of natives.

Conservatives value the rule of law and national security. Security provides an environment where the law can be applied equally while the law provides a framework through which security can be legitimized. But our current immigration laws would require a police state to be enforced consistently.

Conservatives pride themselves on advocating policies based on reality, not wishful thinking. As John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Yet our immigration policy is beset by a disconnect between the legality and reality, and reality—as always—is winning.

Conservatives have concerns about security in the post-9/11 world. 

Instead of wasting scarce security resources keeping out the millions of Indian and Chinese computer programmers and Mexican laborers, we should devote those border resources to blocking actual security threats. An immigration policy that only weeds out suspected terrorists or criminals will focus law enforcement, not continually dissipate it in a vain attempt to manipulate labor markets.

Many conservatives argue that we cannot discuss reforming legal immigration until we solve the undocumented immigrant problem. That doesn’t make any sense. 

The nation’s broken legal immigration system is what drives unauthorized immigration in the first place. Conservatives would laugh at leftists who said, “we need to eliminate tax cheating before we can consider cutting taxes.” To argue that poor enforcement of a bad policy is a good reason not to change that policy is just plain absurd.

Finally, conservatives should support increased legal migration to uphold an old American tradition. Conservatism is, after all, about conserving the values, traditions, and political economic system that make the United States unique amongst nations. This nation was founded by immigrants. English, Irish, Scottish, German, and Swedish immigrants dominated the 13 colonies before Independence.

The Tea Parties have harkened back to the Founding Fathers. Conservatives should especially remember that one of the Founders’ complaints against King George III written in the Declaration of Independence was that, “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.”

The twenty-five year anniversary of the so called “amnesty” bill should make conservatives reflect on the role immigration has played in building our Republic and how far we’ve strayed from those original ideals with restrictions, quotas, and big government interventions. 

Basing our immigration policy on American traditions, free markets, and the rule of law will help guarantee Republicans victory and grant our nation prosperity. Like most policies that are good for America, increasing legal immigration is the conservative thing to do.