clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The GOP field spent an evening at the Reagan library trashing Reagan’s immigration policy

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

One of the most bizarre aspects of Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate was watching the candidates fall over themselves vowing to not offer "amnesty" to unauthorized immigrants, and indeed bickering over the very definition of "amnesty." "A majority of the men and women on this stage have previously and publicly embraced amnesty," Ted Cruz charged (see video above).

They did this in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs, where the debate was held. And you know who definitely supported amnesty? Not a "path to citizenship," not "you go to the end of the line and work your way up and then you might be a permanent resident," but pure, unadulterated amnesty for immigrants who entered illegally? Ronald Reagan.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed into law by Reagan granted legal status to all undocumented immigrants who entered the US before January 1, 1982 so long as they paid a fee, and could show they hadn't committed any crimes. About 2.7 million people were eventually legalized through the bill. And Reagan wasn't shy about supporting immigration, and expressing sympathy for undocumented immigrants, saying during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally":

And the 1986 bill worked, if by "worked" we mean "made the lives of people living in the United States better." A 2009 paper by Rob Paral and Associates for the Immigration Policy Center found that beneficiaries of the amnesty became better educated, experienced less poverty, earned higher wages, and didn't overuse public assistance in the aftermath of the law. Inferring causality in these cases is always tough, but this jibes with the rest of the economic literature which finds that legalization has positive economic effects.

Bernt Bratsberg, James Ragan, and Zafar Nasir found in 2002 that legalization raised wages by about 5.6 percent. Ather Akbari in 2008 found a wage bump of 9 to 12 percent. Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins put the gain at 8 to 11 percent. Those are significant gains for immigrants, ones which enable more spending, which contributes to economic growth in the US as a whole.

It was a good bill. It made the lives of 2.7 million people significantly better. And it's definitely the most authentically Reaganite approach to immigration policy.

And yet every person on stage distanced themselves from the preferred policy of Reagan, even as they repeatedly sang the late president's praises. It's a bizarre case of cognitive dissonance. You can be the heir to Reagan's legacy, or you can oppose amnesty. You can't do both.