Noah Smith, Tribune News Service
Many Republicans are worried about America’s changing demographics. But it was a Republican president — Ronald Reagan — who set the country on its irrevocable course toward greater diversity. And they should honour Reagan’s vision.
The US is inexorably becoming a more heterogeneous country. Non-Hispanic whites comprise about three fifths of the population, down from almost nine tenths in 1940. Already, the country’s two largest and most economically important states, California and Texas, are majority-minority. Although Hispanic fertility rates have fallen and Latin American immigration has mostly tapered off, the Census Bureau projects that the country as a whole will become majority-minority by 2045.
Polls show that the bulk of Americans, including whites, are comfortable with this shift. But a substantial minority – including many Republicans, and especially Trump voters – is not happy. A 2016 survey found that reminding some white voters of the demographic shift increased their support for Donald Trump, and for anti-immigration policies.
Democrats tend to attribute such views to racism, and this is certainly an important factor, intertwined with a chauvinistic belief in Western cultural superiority. But many Republicans are also worried about the political implications of the shift. With Hispanic and Asian Americans now seemingly a solid Democratic constituency, analysts on both sides anticipate that demographic change could make the GOP a permanent minority party. Such worries are commonplace throughout US history — in the early 1800s, Federalists and Whigs fretted that Democrats were importing Irish votes.
Many attribute the nation’s increasing diversity to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Adopted under President Lyndon Johnson, the legislation abolished the quota system that had heavily restricted non-European immigration since 1924. Yet when Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, the country was still about 80% non-Hispanic white. Reagan, a notorious conservative who made deep changes to tax policy, labor relations, and the military, had a unique opportunity to arrest the demographic impact of the 1965 law before it became significant.
Instead, he chose to let demographic change continue. From the start, Reagan expressed pro-immigration sentiments. In a 1980 debate with primary election rival George H.W. Bush, Reagan advocated expanded legal immigration from Mexico, declaring: “Rather than...talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we...make it possible for (Mexicans) to come here legally with a work permit.”
Reagan made good on his word. In 1986 he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to more than 3 million immigrants living in the US illegally. It was an epochal event — the largest such amnesty in the country’s history.
The IRCA changed US demographics irrevocably. Had Reagan chosen to enact a large-scale deportation program (like the ones carried out in more recent years), he might have expelled many of those 3 million undocumented immigrants, most of whom were Mexican. Instead, they got to stay, and had children who became US citizens. As a concession to restrictionists, IRCA did include punishments for employers who hired unauthorized immigrants, but these had no effect on immigration patterns.
Reagan also had a chance to stop the mostly nonwhite legal immigration that was bringing people from all corners of the globe. He never tried. In fact, despite holding some bigoted attitudes in private, Reagan remained passionately committed to the ideal of global immigration throughout his presidency. Thus, although it was Johnson who opened the door for diverse immigration, it was Reagan who sealed the country’s fate as a nation of all races and ethnicities.
Now Trump and his base want to turn back the clock, using immigration restriction and mass deportation to wipe away the diverse nation Reagan created. The effort will fail: A majority-minority citizenry is already baked into the demographic cake.
Instead of a joining a doomed rebellion against demographic destiny, Republicans should re-commit themselves to Reagan’s vision. Global immigration is important for the nation’s prosperity. Even more crucial is the social trust and unity that comes from Americans of all races believing that they belong.
Ronald Reagan believed in a country that was defined by ideals and institutions instead of by race. Today’s Republicans should reject demographic fear and return to that powerful vision.
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