Internet myth: Ronald Reagan regretted legalization

David Bier Immigration Policy Analyst, Niskanen Center
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Americans often bolster arguments with quotes from Founding Fathers or other U.S. political icons. Unfortunately, this practice often leads to quotes being invented to support a weak case. One such invention made its way into Thursday’s Wall Street Journal in an op-ed by Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AK).

Rep. Cotton claimed that “according to former Attorney General Edwin Meese, President Reagan considered the biggest mistake of his presidency” to be “the 1986 amnesty law.” But this Internet myth is groundless. At the Heritage Foundation in 2007, Meese was asked directly, “What would Reagan do?” Meese said, “Reagan always learned from those things that didn’t go the way he expected, so I’m sure that he would appreciate the fact that amnesty did not work.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who is claiming to know that Reagan had a change of heart. Earlier, in 2006, Meese penned an op-ed in the New York Times in which he stated that “President Reagan considered it reasonable to adjust the status of what was then a relatively small population,” but he “called this what it was: amnesty.” When contacted, Meese said that he “never heard Reagan say it was his biggest mistake and he’s never claimed to have heard that.”

The public record shows that Reagan never backed down from his long-held support for legalization. “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,” said Reagan in a 1984 presidential debate.

“We have consistently supported a legalization program,” Reagan again explained in the bill’s signing statement. “The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight.”

Rep. Cotton may have pulled his assertion from a June op-ed in the Washington Times by editorialist Peter Parisi, which stated, “Reagan confidant Edwin Meese says the Gipper told him that in hindsight signing the 1986 amnesty was the biggest mistake of his presidency.” Parisi said he couldn’t remember where he read that, but that it was probably on Heritage.org—a search turned up nothing.

The representative’s exact phrasing may trace to a January 2012 op-ed in the Times Examiner, a conservative South Carolina newsletter, in which contributor Mike Scruggs wrote almost identical lines: “According to Ronald Reagan himself, as told to his trusted long-time friend and U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, the biggest mistake of his presidency was signing the 1986 amnesty.” Scruggs also said he couldn’t find his source.

Google reveals that the claim has bounced around since 2003. Reagan called it, an Internet forum commenter wrote then, “one of the biggest mistakes of his two terms.” In 2007, it turns into his “biggest disappointment.” By 2007, the quote was attributed to Ed Meese. Later, in December 2011, it became a direct quote from Reagan in an article on the ironically-named BeforeItsNews.com (in this case, it’s before it happened). Blogs have rapidly spread it since then, before it reached the Washington Times this June.

Reagan’s son, Michael, also disputes the idea Reagan regretted his decision. In February, Michael wrote that legalization “should be embraced as such by conservatives of all parties who want to continue the ‘Reagan legacy.’ Make no mistake about it, my father Ronald Reagan would be happy to see the Republicans taking a leadership position on this issue.”

Even if the story is apocryphal, can we say what Reagan would do today? Not definitively, but in a 1980 primary debate, the Great Communicator indicated his preferred option. “Rather than… talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we… make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit? Then, while their working and earning here, they pay taxes here, and when they want to go back, they can go back.”

Reagan’s compromise, in other words, was not begrudgingly letting immigrants stay, but building up the border. Moreover, it seems that Reagan would understand that his law failed to stop illegal immigration, not because we allowed people to stay, but because we refused to allow more to come—in his farewell address, he said he wanted an America “open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.” That doesn’t sound like regret to me.

David J. Bier is the Immigration Policy Analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute