On the campaign trail, Donald Trump denigrated Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers and vowed to ban Muslims from coming to the United States. In his first week in office, Trump made it clear he was deadly serious about putting anti-immigrant rhetoric into practice.
Trump has already ordered construction of a wall between the US and Mexico, cut the number of refugees the US will accept, banned immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, and ordered stricter enforcement of immigration laws against people suspected of being in the US illegally. These represent the harshest anti-immigrant measures the US has seen in decades
So I found it interesting to watch this 1980 Republican primary debate between George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. These two men, of course, became running mates and then our next two presidents. At the debate, an audience member asked them how they felt about illegal immigrants attending public high school in Texas.
“I’d like to see something done about the illegal alien problem that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs that that problem wouldn’t come up,” Bush said. “But today if those people are here, I would reluctantly say they would get whatever it is that their society is giving to their neighbors.
“But the problem has to be solved. Because as we have made illegal some types of labor that I would like to see legal, we’re doing two things. We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law, and second we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico. These are good people, strong people — part of my family is Mexican.”
You might expect Ronald Reagan, the more conservative candidate in the race, to disagree. Instead, Reagan said that he’d like to “add to that.”
“I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors, particularly our neighbor to the south, should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we’ve ever had,” Reagan said. “And I think we haven’t been sensitive to our size and our power.”
Reagan worried that if the US was too hostile toward Mexico, it could lead to a Cuban-style revolution there that would cause the US larger problems in the long run.
“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit,” he said. “And then while they’re working and earning here they pay taxes here.”
So Trump’s harsh immigration rhetoric represents a dramatic break from other recent Republican presidents. Reagan and the elder President Bush stressed the importance of treating immigrants — even those here illegally — with compassion and respect (the younger President Bush did too). They all believed it was important to maintain a healthy relationship with Mexico. But during the Obama years, we saw a dramatic change in how Republican politicians talked about immigrants — a shift that culminated with Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination in 2016.