Immigration and the Party of Reagan

By Alfonso Aguilar

Restrictionism is part of the protectionist creed and historically has been embraced by big labor and others on the political left.

Newt Gingrich’s comments in support of a temporary worker program and the legalization of undocumented immigrants who establish deep roots in the country have angered restrictionists on the right. As they did earlier this year when Texas Gov. Rick Perry stressed his support for in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrants, restrictionists blasted the former House speaker and presidential hopeful for not taking a “conservative” stance on the issue.

But are they ideologically correct in their attacks? Is restrictionism — the philosophy that proposes that government severely restrict the entry of immigrant workers our economy clearly needs — really the conservative position?

Absolutely not. Restrictionism, after all, is part of the protectionist creed. It contradicts the basic principles of free-market economics and historically has been embraced by big labor and others on the political left — not by conservatives. Union leaders have consistently fought to prevent companies that cannot find American workers from hiring the foreign workers they need to grow.

By contrast, until recently conservative leaders traditionally endorsed immigration as part and parcel of the free-market paradigm. As Ronald Reagan put it: “Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion, or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do? One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”

Republicans have long favored the creation of a temporary worker program like the Krieble Foundation’s “Red Card Solution,” which Mr. Gingrich referenced in the last presidential debate. The Krieble plan would discourage illegal immigration and would allow the market — rather than the federal government — to determine how many visas are needed.

Long before the Red Card Solution was proposed, Republicans supported legalization for those immigrants who came to work and over time raised families and became contributing members of the community — because it is the right thing to do. As social conservatives with strong family values, Republicans inherently understand the importance of keeping families together.

Why then are the conservative credentials of Messrs. Gingrich and Perry being questioned? Aren’t their positions in line with the Gipper’s? Ironically, it is their accusers who are not being true to conservative principles. Many echo the anti-immigration sentiments of such restrictionist groups as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, which are anything but conservative. These groups are mostly led by population-control activists and radical environmentalists who agree with the absurd Malthusian premise that people are pollution.

While the majority of Republicans don’t agree with the restrictionist view of the world, too many remain silent for fear of being labeled soft on illegal immigration. Thus the vitriol on immigration one often hears comes from a minority of Republicans like former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, who in an op-ed for Politico in August — titled “Rick Perry not a true conservative” — compared the Texas governor to Mexican-American labor leader César Chávez.

Conservatives understandably support the rule of law and are concerned when it is violated. But most also are compassionate to those who are less fortunate but trying as best they can to better themselves. That’s why Messrs. Gingrich and Perry are to be commended, not ridiculed, for having the strength to stand their ground on immigration. Mr. Gingrich made this clear in the last debate when he said he was “willing to take the heat” from his own party on this crucial subject.

Both men have unquestionable conservative credentials. They are pro-life, support and defend the sanctity of marriage, are advocates of a strong national security, and believe passionately in small government and states’ rights. And because they are free-market Reagan conservatives, they believe that immigration, as George W. Bush used to say, makes us more, not less American.

I hope this signals that conservatives within the GOP are now ready to take back the immigration issue from the restrictionists in their midst. The question all Republicans must ask themselves is whether they are going to allow their party to be controlled by the ideas of big-labor restrictionists or the ideas of free-market conservatives like Ronald Reagan. The answer should be clear.

Mr. Aguilar is the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. The above article appeared in the December 2, 2011 issue of the Wall Street Journal.