Donald Trump, his cohorts and Republicans like to channel Ronald Reagan as the Republican of Republicans for presidential comportment. As such, an interesting question that Sean Hannity, Donald Trump and the xenophobes have failed to ask themselves is, what would Ronald Reagan say about undocumented immigrants, especially those from México, today. Lucky for us, the historical record clearly answers this question for us.

Before we get to what Ronald Reagan would say, it is important to note what he did. Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, often derided by the xenophobes as the amnesty law. Reagan had a hand in shepherding the law through Congress. One of the criticism levied against the law is that it failed to adequately enforce the provisions of strong enforcement to discourage more undocumented migration the law promised in return for the amnesty provision.

The enforcement of penalties for hiring undocumented immigrants was never truly enforced. However, Ronald Reagan should not be blamed for that as the enforcement lay with subsequent administrations. Yet, from the public record, we know exactly how Ronald Reagan felt about the undocumented immigrants in America, and amnesty.

Let’s break it down into segments, amnesty, border fences/walls, immigrants in general, unemployment and the special relationship with immigrants from Canada and México. After that, we’ll check to see what Ronald Reagan would say about today’s political rhetoric about immigration.

During the televised debate between Reagan and Walter Mondale in 1984, Reagan stated, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally”

Border Fences/Walls
Unlike Republican compatriots, Ronald Reagan was against border fences on the Mexican border. Instead, Reagan advocated for open borders between Canada, México and the United States. On November 11, 1979, as Ronald Reagan was announcing his presidential candidacy, he proposed a “North American accord” where people and commerce would move freely across the borders of Canada and México. [1]

Reagan never wavered on his opposition to border barriers along the U.S.-México border.

“Rather than making them, of 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, and then, while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back, and cross. And open the border both ways, by understanding their problems. This is the only safety valve they have right now, with that unemployment, that probably keeps the lid from blowing off…And I think we could have a fine relationship.” [2]

In his diary, Ronald Reagan wrote that he hoped that during the private meeting with then Mexican president José López Portillo, Reagan hoped that they could “discuss how the United States and Mexico could make the border ‘something other than the location for a fence.’” [9]

Immigrants in General
Ronald Reagan welcomed immigrants. “But anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in America and become an American.” [1]

In a July 30, 1981 statement, Reagan stated, “our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.” [5]

In preparation to run for president, Ronald Reagan offered radio commentary between 1975 and 1979. In total, Regan delivered 1,027 radio addresses. On November 29, 1977, Ronald Reagan offered a radio address about apples. Reagan would write his own radio addresses beforehand. The Reagan Library has a collection of his handwritten notes. For the November 29, radio address, Reagan’s wrote the following in his notes:

“But it makes you wonder if how of our own unemployed are about the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people wont [sic] do?” [4]

Ronald Reagan did not see immigrants, including the undocumented as a detriment to the American workers.

“Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have stablished equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status. At the same time, in doing so, we must not encourage illegal immigration.” [5]

Some readers may be tempted to grab unto the “we must not encourage illegal immigration” as the “but” to the notion that Ronald Reagan believed that immigrants are good for the country. Although Ronald Reagan believed in “orderly” immigration and the “legal authority to establish control over immigration,” Reagan nonetheless acknowledge the “special relationship” with Canada and México.

The Special Relationship with Immigrants from Canada and México
Ronald Reagan considered Mexican immigrants as a benefit to the American economy. “We must recognize that both the United States and Mexico have historically benefited from Mexicans obtaining employment in the United States.” [5]

What Would Reagan Do Today?
The obvious question today, is what Ronald Reagan would say about the border wall debacle and about the immigration debate today.

Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s son, who is a national commentator wrote an editorial for Newsmax which was published on February 11, 2013. In the piece, Michael Reagan wrote about his support for the Marco Rubio immigration bill. The Rubio billed offered “steps to give more than 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States legal status.” [7]

Michael Reagan wrote, “Make no mistake about it, my father Ronald Reagan would be happy to see the Republicans taking a leadership position on this issue as they join with common-sense Democrats.” Michael Reagan added, “If a plan like the Rubio one was implemented, it would change the perception by the immigrant population that many conservatives are anti-immigrant.” [7]

Poignantly, Michael Reagan added in his 2013 piece that “on a personal note, I can say that my Dad would certainly back the idea that the children of immigrants, brought to this country by their parents, should be able to stay here.” [7]

Regret on Amnesty
When the discussion arises about Ronald Regan’s amnesty program from 1986, often commentators will argue that Reagan considered the 1986 amnesty law as his “biggest mistake.” The fact is that Ronald Reagan never regretted the amnesty portion of the law he signed, although the notion persists in public.

The mistaken notion has been attributed to Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese. Meese made numerous statements about the failures about the amnesty program. However, although quoted by some that Reagan told him he “regretted” the amnesty program, Meese told The Daily Caller in 2013 that Meese “never heard Reagan say it was the biggest mistake and he (Meese) never claimed to have heard that.” [6]

In 2006, Edwin Meese wrote an opinion piece for the Heritage Foundation, where he argued that the word amnesty “has become something of a dirty word.” [8] The Heritage Foundation is a conservative public policy think tank that has been supportive of Donald Trump and supports stricter immigration limits. In his piece, Meese wrote that “in the thick of things” during the debates about the 1986 immigration reform legislation, Congress should “start with securing the border,” but it must also “try improving on Ronald Reagan’s idea of a pilot program for genuinely temporary workers.” [8]

As correctly pointed out by David Bier, in his Daily Caller article, the public record shows that Reagan never backed down from his open immigration beliefs.

As a matter of fact, Ronald Reagan himself made this abundantly clear:

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.” [3]

Clearly, Ronald Reagan believed that immigrants, including undocumented immigrants are an important part of America. This begs the question, what happened to the Republican Party? Readers may be surprised to learn that a historical examination of mass deportations will show a different light of how Republicans have treated immigrants over time. Friday’s article will examine that in depth.

Tomorrow, though, we’ll take Ronald Reagan’s immigration model and look at a simple solution to the immigration debacle that addresses the many fears anti-immigrants hold while keeping America’s economy moving forward.


1. Cannon, Lou; “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime”; Public Affairs, 2000; pg: 404
2. 1980 Republican presidential nomination between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush
3. Reagan, Ronald; “Farewell Address to the Nation”; January 11, 1989
4. Reagan, Ronald; “Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Own Revolutionary Vision for America”; Simon and Schuster, 2001; pg 302.
5. Ronald Reagan Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy, July 30, 1981
6. Bier, David; “Internet Myth: Ronald Reagan Regretted Legalization”; The Daily Caller; July 17, 2013; accessed on June 22, 2018:
7. Reagan, Michael; “Mike Reagan: Embrace Rubio Plan”; Newsmax; February 11, 2013; accessed on June 22, 2018:
8. Meese, Edwin III; “An Amnesty by Any Other Name…”; The Heritage Foundation; May 25, 2006; accessed on June 22, 2018:
9. Marrero, Pilar; “Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists are Destroying the Nation”; St. Martin’s Press, 2012; pg. 16.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

3 replies on “What Would Reagan Do”

  1. Those Republican days are long gone. Since el trompas became their leader they rarely reference Saint Ronnie in their daily prayers. They stopped with their pious “family values” nonsense. No more need for these in their public appearances now that they have el trompas. He will deliver and circle the wagons they will.

    The KKK took over the Democratic Party in the 1920s. Nowadays the Republican Party has gone white nationalist and after yesterday’s ruling it seems that the majority at SCOTUS has too.

    I fear el trompas will get his pinche wall.

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