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Republicans Were Pro-Immigrant. Then This Happened.

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A shocking video is making the rounds on social media. It shows Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush at a 1980 presidential forum. And it’s shocking because it seems like a Disney film compared to the election-year horror flick we’re currently watching through our fingers.  

An audience member asked the Republican presidential candidate and his running mate whether the children of undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools for free.

Bush answered with passionate empathy: “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… We’re creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law, and secondly we’re exacerbating relations with Mexico…”

Next, Reagan spoke up, calmly and earnestly: “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… Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?”

Oh, how times have changed. But why? How did the Republican party go from the compassionate policies of the 1980s to today’s deport-’em-and-seal-the-border stance? 

It wasn’t a trickle-down effect. (Is anything?) Rather, Republican leaders started telling their constituents what they wanted to hear. And what did Republicans want to hear? “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.” 

Joe Arpaio once said he wouldn't target undocumented dishwashers, but when his Republican constituents pushed him to be harder on illegal immigration, he fashioned himself into "America's Toughest Sheriff."

Joe Arpaio once said he wouldn’t target undocumented dishwashers, but when his Republican constituents pushed him to be harder on illegal immigration, he fashioned himself into “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”

Economics: Then and Now

The middle class today is being squeezed like the cheese in a pressed sandwich. “The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans,” wrote David Frum recently in The Atlantic.

The reasons are numerous. Here are a few:

In 1955, the 400 taxpayers with the highest annual income paid 51 percent of their earnings in taxes. Today, the same group pays 16 percent. Who’s helping compensate? The middle class, whose tax rates have risen, particularly Social Security and Medicare rates.

In 1965, CEOs of major companies earned 20 times more than their average employees. By the end of the 1990s, CEOs earned 383 times more than the average worker. As of 2013, the ratio of CEO-to-worker pay was down to a still-outrageous 295-to-1.

During the first decade of the 2000s, American companies sent 2.9 million jobs overseas. The United States lost 6 million manufacturing jobs between early 2001 and late 2009.

Combine those facts with the recession, which caused massive financial and employment losses, and you have a recipe for a searing hot stew of seething anger.

Then add some tabasco: To help fund Obamacare, the Obama administration curtailed anticipated spending increases in Medicare between 2010 to 2020 by $500 billion. Many Republicans saw this as taking from “us” – hardworking American citizens – to fund “them” – the uninsured, many of whom are non-citizens or foreign-born.

Anger needs a scapegoat. The dissatisfied could blame the rich, and they often do. But lately, their most vitriolic anger is directed at the poor – in this case, immigrants. Why? Well, it’s difficult to get “mad as hell” at the wealthy people who are providing you and your community employment. It’s also natural to be skeptical that the federal government – made up of wealthy people financially backed by wealthy people – will ever enact sweeping policies that punish wealthy people. So there’s not much point, many reason, in directing energy there. (It helps that Republican leaders have spent years fueling distrust of the government.) Then there’s that true-blue American optimism that hopes one day we’ll be wealthy too, so if we fight against the wealthy, we’re fighting against our future selves.

On the other hand, Frum says, “Many old-stock inhabitants see immigrants not only as competitors for jobs, but also as rival claimants on government resources.” It’s no accident that half of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s supporters (united largely by their tough views on immigration) ended their education at or before high school graduation. This group faces more competition with immigrants for jobs than do people with post-college degrees.

And amidst all this economic insecurity is a nebulous unease about rapid increases in ethnic diversity.

Immigrant Population: Then and Now

In 1986, an estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S. That same year, Reagan signed a so-called amnesty bill that provided a path to citizenship for millions of those people. Many claim this bill (which was framed at the time as a crackdown on immigration) was a failure because it caused an “explosion” in immigration leading to the 11 million undocumented immigrants we have today.

This is such an oversimplification it’s actually wrong. First, myriad factors led to an increase in immigration over the years, most notably NAFTA, which drove small Mexican farmers off their land at the same time the U.S. was enjoying a bumper crop of prosperity. (From 1990 to 2000, the foreign-born population – including documented and undocumented people – spiked by 57 percent.)

Second, though the undocumented population has risen during that time, so has the general population. In 1986, undocumented people comprised about 1 percent of the population; today, it’s 3 percent. Hardly an explosion. 

What has exploded during that same time period? The Hispanic population, which jumped from 7 percent of the U.S. population to 17 percent

America has had a long history of prejudice against the latest wave of immigrants, particularly when their skin is browner than the previous wave’s. “No Wops (Italians) Need Apply.” “The Chinese Must Go.” “Japs Keep Moving.” 

An anti Japanese message during WWII.

An anti Japanese message during WWII.

So it isn’t a stretch to suggest that a significant segment of the population feels threatened by the number of brown faces they see on the streets and in the classrooms. That fear is exacerbated by the fact that in about 25 years, whites will be a minority in the U.S. They worry America’s culture will change. They worry people who come from less democratic countries might bring a more lax political mindset with them.

Anti-immigration movement mastermind John Tanton (more on him later) once sent a memo to his fellow activists that read: “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”

Since open expression of these worries could lead to accusations of racism, many people direct their attention at undocumented immigrants. It’s one of the most common threads seen in the comments section of news websites: “I’m fine with immigration, just not the illegals.” They often claim it’s because undocumented immigrants take benefits like welfare without paying taxes. But undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid or most other public benefits. And they do pay taxes – an estimated $10.6 billion in 2010. 

However, to blame Republicans’ increasingly harsh immigration stance on racism would be such an oversimplification that it too would be wrong.

Culture: Then and Now

In 1960, when Americans were asked in a poll, “Would you be upset if your child married a supporter of a different party from your own?” only 5 percent said yes. In 2010, a third of Democrats and half of Republicans said yes. What changed?

Political identity didn’t used to be tied so closely with personal identity. As Frum points out, “In 1960, I wouldn’t have learned much about your politics if you told me that you hunted. Today, that hobby strongly suggests Republican loyalty. Unmarried? In 1960, that indicated little. Today, it predicts that you’re a Democrat, especially if you’re also a woman.” 

Even in Reagan’s day, much of the Republican platform and identity centered around business concerns. (And from a businessperson’s perspective, immigration is an economic stimulant; hence, in part, Reagan’s more open-door policies.)

Gradually, political platforms become more about social issues, which are more polarizing than business concerns. And political identity became less “These are the beliefs I hold” and more “This is the person I am.” Nowadays, you can often tell what political party someone belongs to simply by looking at them.

Partly for these cultural reasons, more blue-collar and rural Americans gradually sided with the GOP, nudging it a bit farther right. 

In the 1970s, evangelical Christians mobilized to protect the tax-exempt status of segregated schools. To do so, they aligned with far-right Republicans, further contributing over time to the party’s right-ward shift. Considering that the evangelical voter bloc formed to support segregation, and that studies have linked increased religiosity with an increased tendency toward racism, it’s not surprising that many people in this group take a hard line on immigration.

Starting in the 1980s, a doctor named John Tanton began a behind-the-scenes campaign to influence the Republican mindset on immigration. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him “the mastermind behind the organized anti-immigration movement.” He founded the innocuous-sounding Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Both of these organizations feed anti-immigration talking points to politicians and media, and launched millions of faxes and emails that helped defeat an immigration reform bill in 2007

In 2001, Tanton wrote a letter outlining his idea to “move the battle lines on the immigration question in our favor” by convincing Republican lawmakers that “massive immigration imperils their political future.” The goal, he wrote, was to “change Republicans’ perception of immigration so that when they encounter the word ‘immigrant,’ their reaction is ‘Democrat.’”

With the help of economic turmoil and cultural upheaval, he succeeded.