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The GOP's Change On Immigration


Congress is trying again to make progress on immigration. Democrats stepped back from a government shutdown triggered by their demand to protect people brought illegally to the U.S. as children. In return, they received a promise to at least consider that issue in the Senate. Some Republicans also favor a deal for DACA recipients, but over a period of decades, the Republican Party has shifted on immigration. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For decades, it was constant, the way Republican presidents and other party leaders talked about immigration. Take Ronald Reagan, a hero then and now to GOP conservatives.


RONALD REAGAN: I think the time has come that the United States and our neighbors, particularly our neighbor to the south, should have a better understanding and a better relationship than we've ever had.

GONYEA: That was from 1980 at a GOP candidate debate before Reagan was elected president, but it sounds almost like he's reacting to today's immigration debate.


REAGAN: Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don't we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?

GONYEA: On the stage debating him that day, another 1980 GOP presidential hopeful, George H.W. Bush, arguing that children who are in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to attend U.S. public school.


GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I don't want to see a whole thing of 6 and 8-year-old kids being made, one, totally uneducated, and made to feel they're living with - outside the law.

GONYEA: Now let's jump forward a couple of decades to the presidency of George W. Bush, who could be finishing his father's sentences in these comments at the White House in 2004.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Many undocumented workers have walked mile after mile through the heat of the day and the cold of the night.

GONYEA: They risked their lives, Bush said.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Workers who seek only to earn a living end up in the shadows of American life.

GONYEA: Again, those were mainstream Republicans speaking, each elected president. But over the past decade, a very different discussion of immigration has taken hold within the GOP, eventually building to this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best.

GONYEA: It's Donald Trump, kicking off his presidential campaign two and a half years ago.


TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards, and they tell us what we're getting.

GONYEA: And, of course, there was this staple of Trump campaign rallies.


TRUMP: Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.

GONYEA: Ari Fleischer was the press secretary for President George W. Bush. He's been watching this shift on immigration within the GOP closely.

ARI FLEISCHER: Donald Trump talks about immigration in a way that's very different from how George Bush talked about it, how Mitt Romney talked about it, how John McCain talked about it. But it's also true that Donald Trump won the election.

GONYEA: Key, Fleischer says, is how working-class voters look at the issue.

FLEISCHER: Frankly, I think the biggest change was the economy weakened. People who were in America were worried about their jobs and their livelihood, and they did worry about a surge of people coming through illegally, a lower-priced labor force that would squeeze Americans.

GONYEA: Economists say what drives wages goes way beyond immigration. Still, such worries gave the topic more potency than it previously had within the GOP. But Mark Krikorian, an advocate for less immigration at the D.C.-based think tank the Center for Immigration Studies, has a different theory. He says that establishment GOP leaders of an earlier era were simply out of touch with working people.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Ordinary Republican voters were just much more hawkish on immigration than Republican politicians and advisers and fixers and donors and the whole political class.

GONYEA: In 2013, conservatives blocked an immigration bill that had passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. Senate. Krikorian notes that years earlier GOP voters were strong enough to prevent passage of immigration legislation pushed by President George W. Bush, and he believes all of this helped set the stage for Donald Trump.

KRIKORIAN: He took advantage of that gap between what the actual voters wanted and what the political class was offering.

GONYEA: Now many Republicans in Congress feel they've closed that gap with the GOP base. And with Trump in the Oval Office, they expect to at last get an immigration policy that the base also likes. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.