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A Dishonored Anniversary

How Romney forsook the Gipper’s immigration model 26 years later.

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On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). No president since then has been able to develop, shepherd through Congress, and sign a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package.


The Great Communicator from California knew something that Republicans — who continually channel his ethos and champion his legacy — are learning right now: Immigrants matter, Hispanics count, and mean-spirited, petty policies aimed at hurting Hispanics are paid back in kind at the polls.

Six years after Reagan left the White House, the Republican governor of his state, the hapless and forgettable Pete Wilson, pushed through Proposition 187, the so-called Save Our State Initiative. The law was designed to make life so miserable for the undocumented that they would (wait for it) ... deport themselves.

Proposition 187 required school teachers to remove undocumented children from their classrooms (they refused) and mandated that treatment of the undocumented in the state's emergency rooms should be denied by physicians, who also ignored this draconian law. By 1999, Prop. 187 was declared unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court; yet that ballot initiative forever changed politics in California, turning a once reliably red mega-state bright blue.

Over the past few years, with no understanding of Reagan's message or his prudent, hate-free approach to immigration questions (IRCA provided permanent legal residence status to 2.7 million undocumented agricultural workers and targeted the corporations that knowingly hired the undocumented, abused their labor, and made excessive profits via a broken immigration system), state legislators in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina have completely ignored the lessons from the 1994 California morass.

They have pushed through angry legislation (much of it unconstitutional) that questions children's residency for purposes of school registration, targets those who, willfully or not, help the undocumented in any way, and makes an undocumented person's mere "presence" in certain states an actual crime scene.

People in 2012 no longer communicate by rotary telephones. News of these abusive laws spread quickly via cell phones and Twitter; translated onto Spanish language television and radio, they became election issues in Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia.

No surprise that the presidential candidate forced to defend the rash of recent and really stupid legislation out of Arizona and other places, the man who jumped on the bandwagon by actually coining the term "self-deport," lost the presidential race on November 6th.

That anyone should be surprised that Romney lost, or received a mere 25 percent of the national Hispanic vote, is the real surprise. Those of us tuned into demographic trends or who fought through California's brutal 1994 crash course on how not to treat human beings — immigrants, non-immigrants, documented, or undocumented — predicted the outcome of this election long ago.

Now, it's time for President Obama, with the support of the U.S. Congress in a bipartisan, rational fashion, to craft and pass comprehensive immigration reform. It's time for all of us to tune out the xenophobic obstructionists — the people who have had the upper hand in this debate for too long and who essentially see the undocumented as a lesser form of humanity — and enact pragmatic legislation that can be signed by thinking problem-solvers on both sides of the aisle.

Through a series of fines, penalties, and other means to demonstrate culpability within a revamped immigration system, folks who are here and integrated into our communities, who are working, going to school, and supporting families can be offered a pathway to citizenship — which is what millions of the undocumented want and what polls show a majority of Americans support.

Republicans went over the immigration cliff on Election Day, at a time when they could have been celebrating a presidential victory. Romney failed to connect with wide segments of the electorate and missed an opportunity to draw on the example of Ronald Reagan and to follow the historical direction he set — at a time, moreover, when he desperately needed both, on the 26th anniversary of the Great Communicator's signature, bipartisan immigration reform act.
Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis, Inc. Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.


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