It seems that every year, conservatives and Republicans go further in their admiration of President Reagan. Surely he is held up as some kind of paragon of proper governance, and many nostalgically look to his reign as some kind of high point in the executive branch’s devotion to American liberty.

There is one area where I do think Reagan was more clearly on the side of freedom than many of his contemporaries and, in particular, the presidents who have followed him. There is one issue—an important issue—where much of the nation and the Republican Party has strayed from a devotion to liberty where we can trace the decline as happening since the era of Reagan. That issue is immigration, on which Reagan would not only be seen as a liberal today, but more radical than virtually any Democrat running for major office. It was 25 years ago that Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act—also known, including by Reagan himself, as “immigration amnesty.”

Back then “amnesty” was not a dirty word. The Gipper was proud to call for legalizing the illegal aliens who, due to unjust immigration laws, were technically in violation of the law but were no kind of actual criminal other than this. Yet today even taking a moderate position pushes one outside of the Republican mainstream. People who do not advocate “amnesty” are smeared for doing so. This is a tragedy for freedom and also bad politics for the Republican Party, argues Alex Nowrasteh.

Writing at Fox News, Nowrasteh mocks the idea that the borders must be secured before the country liberalizes immigration law:

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.

Also compelling is the point that being pro-immigration—and, indeed, resisting anti-immigration laws—is as American as the Revolution:

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.”

In many areas, Reagan as president wasn’t nearly as pro-liberty as his rhetoric. But in one venue, he did widen freedom and push back against the statist tide—not perfectly, but more significantly than has been done in this arena since he was in power. It is sad and ironic that the party that lionizes this man distances itself from one of his few true positive legacies as a champion of smaller government and America’s founding principles of freedom.

Anthony Gregory

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