09/28/2011 04:52 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

Who Invented Immigration 'Amnesty'? (Hint: His Initials Are RR)

It wasn't Robert Redford or Roy Rogers. It was someone Democrats and liberals demonized and Republicans and conservatives deified.

His idea of America was dramatically different from that of today's Republican presidential candidates. Ronald Reagan was an optimist whose vision was based on confidence, not fear.

I covered all three of his presidential campaigns and found, amid the hyperbole and hokum, an inclusiveness essential to his view of American exceptionalism. You can live in England for 40 years and never become English, he often said. You can live in France for 50 years and never become French. But if you live here and follow the rules, no matter where you come from, you become an American.

As a Californian, he understood border issues, but unlike so many Republican politicians, he was not afraid, certainly not afraid of anyone with a radio show. He had one himself.

He believed in "border security." Who doesn't? In 1984, with fewer than three million undocumented aliens counted, he addressed the issue on Oct. 28, debating the Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale.

"It is true our borders are out of control. It is also true that this has been a situation on our borders back through a number of administrations," Reagan said, adding, "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."

His conditions were many: no criminal record, payment of fees, learning English and going to the back of the line behind legal immigrants. Nonetheless, "amnesty" became a curse, arousing rabid folk eagerly anticipating the mass deportation of 11 million workers, a scapegoat flotilla.

Rick Perry has treated people born in Texas like Texans, so rivals attack him. In the conservative commentariat, The Wall Street Journal is an honorable exception, pointing out that immigration is good for the economy and also that the recession has already reduced illegal immigration. The Journal is stalwart and Reaganesque in resisting the xenophobic fantasies of too many conservatives.

Reagan did not spring his views on an unsuspecting electorate. Three years before he was elected, in a 1977 radio address, he criticized the Carter administration's Labor Department for curbing the flow of seasonal agricultural workers. "It makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss," he wrote. "Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won't do?"

That question is seldom asked by Reagan's would-be successors. On immigration, they are afraid to ask,"What would Reagan do?"