That lesson was brought home to me again on Current TV this week when I interviewed Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, about Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s bold move to end the ban on women in combat. Smeal brought with her a copy of an amicus brief in support of lifting the ban, which she, as president of the National Organization for Women, had filed with the Supreme Court — way back in 1981. Thirty-two years later, it finally happened.
The same scenario is true today with immigration reform. After all, this is hardly a new topic. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it’s “deja vu, all over again.” We’ve been fighting this same battle for years. At the federal level, President Reagan first dealt with the issue of immigration reform in 1986. Fourteen years later, President Clinton tried for wider reform, but could only get congressional support for tougher border controls. Good, strong, comprehensive immigration reform legislation put forth by George W. Bush in 2004, 2005, and 2007 was shot down — by fellow conservatives. And in 2010 President Obama’s first attempt at tackling immigration never got off the ground.
Those of us from California, in particular, have been dealing with this issue for decades. It came to a head in November 1994 with passage of the Republican Party-backed Proposition 187, which denied social services, health care, and public schools to illegal aliens. Later found unconstitutional by a federal court, Prop. 187 has had one lasting effect: since 1994, with the sole exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, no Republican has been elected governor or senator and no Republican presidential candidate has carried the state. As many Latinos observed at the time, Proposition 187 awoke the sleeping giant — and he turned out to be a Democrat!
There’s a lesson therein that California Republicans, and many national Republicans, have still not learned. Certainly, Mitt Romney never did. Asked about immigration reform in January 2012, the best he could come up with was: “The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here. And so we’re not going to round people up.” No surprise that Romney went on to lose the Latino vote to Barack Obama, 71 percent to 27 percent, a lower percentage than Republicans have received in the last three elections.
But now some leading Republicans, led by John McCain, want to change that. They realize that Hispanics, already 16.7 percent of the total U.S. population, the largest ethnic or racial minority, according to the Census Bureau, is also the fastest-growing voting bloc. And they recognize they’d better change their tune on immigration or they’ll never again win the White House and could even lose some traditional red states. Unless Republicans change course and support immigration reform, McCain warned members of his own party this week, “...the trend will continue of lack of support from Hispanic voters, and also as you look at the demographics of states like mine that means that we will go from Republican to Democrat over time.”
Which is why four Republicans — McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio — joined four Democrats — Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Bob Menendez and Michael Bennet — in putting forth the outline of new comprehensive immigration reform legislation this week. That kind of bipartisan support, together with President Obama’s determined leadership on the issue, means that the planets may finally be aligned to produce some action on immigration reform this year.
In crafting a solution, Republicans and Democrats could do a lot worse than just go back to President Reagan and 1986. The bill he signed contained the three essential elements of any lasting immigration reform: more guards at the border; penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers; and a path to citizenship for those who came here illegally a long time ago but are now good, law-abiding, tax-paying members of their community. “I believe in the idea of amnesty,” Reagan said, “for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”
How ironic. The conservative icon Ronald Reagan actually raised taxes, gave amnesty to 3 million Latinos, and supported a ban on assault weapons. Today’s Republicans would be better off if they stopped praising Reagan, and started following him.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.