Will Republicans return to Reagan's voice on immigration?

Tracing Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz's roots in Cuba
Tracing Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz's roots in Cuba

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Tracing Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz's roots in Cuba 02:51

Story highlights

  • GOP candidates' hard line on immigration contrasts unfavorably with the wisdom of Reagan's approach, says Javier Palomarez
  • A good example to emulate is the reasonable approach of the Utah Compact, he says

Javier Palomarez is the president and CEO of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, America's largest Hispanic business association. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN will host town hall meetings with the GOP presidential candidates in South Carolina on Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN)During the last Republican presidential debate, viewers witnessed a historic moment. Two leading presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio -- both of them sons of Cuban immigrants -- debated which one would be tougher on immigration as president.

Javier Palomarez
The exchange became tense when Rubio noted that Cruz doesn't speak Spanish, which led to a quick response from Cruz -- in Spanish.
Besides Rubio's questionable tactic of attempting to embarrass Cruz for an inability to speak Spanish -- not all Hispanic-Americans are fluent in Spanish, and that adds to the rich diversity of our community -- it is disheartening to watch Republican presidential candidates villainize the Hispanic community, then turn around and ask for our vote.
Marco Rubio accuses Ted Cruz of lying
Marco Rubio accuses Ted Cruz of lying

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It hasn't always been this way. Thirty-five years ago, the discourse on immigration during the 1980 GOP Presidential Debate was compassionate and reasonable.
When asked whether the United States should allow the children of undocumented immigrants to go to public schools, presidential candidate George H.W. Bush said, "We're creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law, and secondly we're exacerbating relations with Mexico. ... Let's address ourselves to the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people."

Reagan: 'Rather than talking about putting up a fence'

In response, contender Ronald Reagan largely agreed, adding, "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, and then, while they're working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back and cross. Open the borders both ways."
While the policy solutions proposed here are striking -- work visas, open borders and the recognition that the United States should maintain good relations with Mexico -- what really sets this apart from the current discourse on immigration is the tone. Both Bush and Reagan spoke from a place of understanding and compassion, and they both went on to act on it -- Reagan won the Republican nomination, but Bush became his vice president, and eventually President.
In fact, as President of the United States, Reagan would later sign legislation creating a pathway to citizenship for 3 million undocumented immigrants. This act earned him the support of many in the Hispanic community, some of whom now vote Democratic, but remember and praise Reagan as the President who made it possible for them to stay in the United States, build lives here, start businesses and raise families. Their children are now voters, too.
With this in mind, the Republican Party's leadership already understands that the quality of its outreach to the Hispanic community in past years has been less than ideal.
In fact, the Republican National Committee's 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project openly recognizes that the GOP has difficulty reaching out to Hispanics, stating: "If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn't want them in the United States, they won't pay attention to our next sentence. ... In essence, Hispanic voters tell us our Party's position on immigration has become a litmus test, measuring whether we are meeting them with a welcome mat or a closed door."
Fortunately, the current crop of Republican presidential candidates are not representative of everyone in the party -- actually, they may not even be accurately portraying themselves.
Let's recall that Rubio co-sponsored the Gang of Eight bill and that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has publicly stated that immigrants are an engine of economic vitality. These facts get lost in the shuffle when as presidential candidates, they try to seem tough on immigration in order to reach the GOP base.

Principled leadership on immigration

But our finest example of contemporary principled Republican leadership on immigration hasn't taken place on the national stage at all. Rather, it comes from Utah, where prominent leaders in business, law enforcement and religion from across the state, including two Republican former governors, came together in 2010 to sign the Utah Compact, a declaration of five principles guiding Utah's discourse on immigration. The compact was also signed by the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, the mayors of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, the state attorney general, a former U.S. senator and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
If the Republican Party hopes to reach the Hispanic community during this election cycle, it should look at the Utah Compact as a modern model for reasonable discourse on immigration.
The compact's principles recognize that immigration, including border policy, is a federal issue best addressed by the U.S. government in coordination with foreign countries.
It goes on to state that local law enforcement should be focused on fighting criminal activity, rather than on "civil violations of federal code." Moreover, the compact makes the case that immigration policy should not unnecessarily separate families and commends immigrants for supporting the American economy as workers and taxpayers.
Interestingly, the compact not only acknowledges that immigrants are part of Utah's society, but welcomes them by stating, "the way we treat immigrants will say more about us as a free society and less about our immigrant neighbors. ... Utah should always be a place that welcomes people of good will."
Does any of this sound familiar? The ideas enshrined in the Utah Compact resemble those that presidential candidates Bush and Reagan supported back in the 1980s. Perhaps it's time for our 2016 presidential candidates -- like the Republicans in Utah -- to take a cue from the statesmen that came before them and return to the principles that allowed the Republican Party to win national elections.