Conservative Republican have been outdoing each other in claiming the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Ironically, however, many conservatives are simultaneously outdoing each other in advocating immigration restriction - a stance Reagan would probably have abhorred.
As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon points out in this book (pg. 119), Reagan proposed a treaty allowing for full freedom of movement for all workers throughout North America in his November 1979 speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency. As early as 1952 - at a time when US immigration policy was still governed by the highly restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 - Reagan gave a speech embracing nearly unlimited immigration:
I . . . have thought of America as a place in the divine scheme of things that was set aside as a promised land . . . [A]nd the price of admission was very simple . . . Any place in the world and any person from these places; any person with the courage, with the desire to tear up their roots, to strive for freedom, to attempt and dare to live in a strange and foreign place, to travel halfway across the world was welcome here . . . I believe that God in shedding his grace on this country has always in this divine scheme of things kept an eye on our land and guided it as a promised land for these people. (emphasis added).
Cannon, pg. 119.
Almost forty years later, in his January 1989 farewell message to the nation, Reagan struck a similar theme:
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, wind-swept, 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. (emphasis added)
In between, Reagan pushed for his 1979 North American accord proposal (which eventually became the NAFTA treaty), and signed the 1986 immigration reform law that amnestied almost 3 million illegal immigrants in exchange for relatively weak enforcement measures.
As his 1979 proposal and his support for the 1986 amnesty suggest, Reagan did not demonize illegal immigrants as all too many conservatives do today. He sought instead to enable them to legalize their status, and helped set many on the road to citizenship. In a 1977 radio address, he criticized "the illegal alien fuss" and suggested that illegal aliens may "actually [be] doing work our own people won't do."
While Reagan's rhetorical embrace of "anyone" who wants to come the US probably should be taken literally, it certainly indicates a generally positive attitude towards large-scale immigration from all parts of the world.
The fact that Reagan supported something does not by itself prove that it is right, or even that it is the right position for conservatives. Reagan certainly made his share of mistakes, such as the extremely grave error of trading arms for hostages with Iran. But as Cannon notes, Reagan's positive attitude towards immigration was not just an isolated issue position, but was integrally linked to his generally optimistic and open vision of America. I would add that it also drew on his understanding that America is not a zero-sum game between immigrants and natives - just as he also recognized that it is not a zero-sum game between the rich and the poor. Immigration could promote prosperity and advancement for both groups in much the same way that free trade benefits both Americans and foreigners. Reagan probably did not have a detailed understanding of the economics of comparative advantage which underpins this conclusion. But he surely understood it intuitively. Those who reject Reagan's position on immigration must, if they are to be consistent, also reject much of the rest of his approach to economic and social policy. Today's conservatives can argue for immigration restrictions if they so choose. But they should not claim the mantle of Reagan in doing so.