The year was 1980, the location was Houston and the question came from the crowd at a presidential primary debate between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush — two bellwether conservatives who would eventually serve together as president and vice president.
Should “illegal aliens,” the crowd member asked, be allowed to attend U.S. public schools?
Bush said immigration policy needed to be “sensitive” and “understanding” toward the “really honorable, decent, family-loving people” that had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation.
Reagan echoed that sentiment.
“Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit,” he said. “And then while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back.”
The border, he said, should be open “both ways” — and border security policy should take into account the economic challenges facing Mexico.
Reagan’s words that night, and his stance in countless other public and private statements as president, contrast starkly with the false history lesson President Trump offered Friday in an early-morning tweet, hours before a potential government shutdown over funding for the president’s border wall.
“Even President Ronald Reagan tried for 8 years to build a Border Wall, or Fence, and was unable to do so,” the president wrote in a tweet. “Others also have tried. We will get it done, one way or the other!”
Trump’s simplified characterization of Reagan’s policies are not accurate.
“There was not any discussion at the senior policy levels during the Reagan administration about fencing or a wall that I can recall,” Doris Meissner, who was executive associate commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Reagan administration, wrote in an email.
Meissner, who went on to serve as INS commissioner during the Clinton years and is now a senior fellow at the bipartisan Migration Policy Institute, said immigration was not a national issue in the 1980s in the same way it is today.
“Border enforcement was a concern, as it had always been, but it was a period where the president supported efforts to change laws in ways that would strengthen the immigration system and make it possible to enforce immigration laws more effectively,” Meissner said. “It was an era where immigration was a bipartisan issue, in which both parties worked at coming together to find solutions despite hard-fought policy disagreements. And President Reagan signed those bills.”
In fact, Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law in 1986, which made any immigrant who entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty.
“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though some time back, they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said during a 1984 presidential debate.
Two years later, the Immigration Reform and Control Act also made it illegal, for the first time, for an employer to knowingly hire an undocumented worker.
“Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders,” Reagan said at the time, “and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people — American citizenship.”
But the bill ultimately failed to make true reform happen because it did not create a realistic way to punish employers hiring undocumented laborers. It did, however, provide a path to legal residency in the United States for nearly 3 million immigrants who had come to the country illegally.
“The memorable thing about Reagan is that he was a Californian,” Meissner said. “He was not anti-immigration.”
Reagan was an advocate of legal migration, and of creating legislation that increased border security by air and land through more agents, surveillance and resources. But a wall or fence was never on the table, at least not in the same way erecting a physical barrier has been proposed by the Trump administration.
“I don’t think a border wall as such was discussed at the time. Mainly because it hadn’t quite come to that,” said Clark Judge, a speechwriter and aide in the Reagan White House. “If there were other things contemplated, they were never really acted on.”
With the 1986 immigration bill, the understanding was that amnesty could come in the context of greater border security enforcement, said Judge, who now serves as managing director of the White House Writers Group Inc. But the enforcement part never really followed.
Former senator Alan K. Simpson, a Republican from Wyoming and co-author of the 1986 immigration bill, said that was because the law “didn’t have any teeth because they took the guts out of it.”
Many ideas for securing the border were discussed as lawmakers spoke with constituents and researched how to write the reform legislation. “And Lord sakes, people mentioned everything,” Simpson said: vehicles, airplanes, more agents, more money and, yes, maybe some physical barriers. He does not, however, recall talk of a wall.
“I don’t remember Reagan saying we need a wall,” Simpson said. “Reagan was really sensitive to that stuff.”
In his speeches and statements about U.S. relations with Mexico, Reagan often emphasized the importance of a close friendship with and economic understanding of the United States’s “neighbor” to the south.
“God made Mexico and the United States neighbors, but it is our duty and the duty of generations yet to come to make sure that we remain friends,” Reagan said during a 1981 welcoming ceremony for Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo. “Our very proximity is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how two nations, talking together as equals, as partners, as friends, can solve their problems and deepen their mutual respect.”
In a statement on United States immigration and refugee policies in 1981, Reagan said that both the United States and Mexico have “historically benefited from Mexicans obtaining employment in the United States.”
“Our nation is a nation of immigrants,” he said. “More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”
A search of materials available digitally through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum revealed that the former president rarely, if ever, discussed fencing or a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. It was not a policy talking point during his administration, the records show.
The most frequent mention of any border wall was the one that ran through Berlin, which Reagan famously encouraged communist leaders to tear down.
In a private meeting with Portillo, Mexico’s former president, in 1979, Reagan wrote that he hoped to discuss how the two countries could make their shared border “something other than the location for a fence,” according to an NPR report.
U.S. Border Control didn’t begin building physical barriers on the southern border until 1990, the year after Reagan left office, in which a 14-mile long “primary fence” was erected in San Diego. It wasn’t completed until 1993.
Reagan’s son, Michael, however, thinks now is the time for the wall.