WASHINGTON — In efforts to highlight their get-tough stances on immigration, some Republican candidates for president have pulled in Sen. Harry Reid and one of the episodes in his career that he later said he came to regret.
The topic is whether children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants should automatically be declared American citizens. Reid was against such “birthright citizenship” before he was for it.
Scott Walker and Donald Trump have referenced Reid in calling for changes in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that sets out the concept of birthright citizenship.
Birthright citizenship “remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration,” Trump argued in a policy document this month. “By a 2:1 margin, voters say it’s the wrong policy, including Harry Reid who said ‘no sane country’ would give automatic citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.”
That was Reid’s position in 1993, one that has changed 180 degrees. It would be unrecognizable next to the Nevadan’s current stance as a major supporter of work permits for young DREAMers and a path to earned citizenship for millions of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
The Nevadan’s shift on immigration is not new news. It aired during his 2010 re-election campaign when GOP opponent Sharron Angle attacked him on it.
Reid was mum last week, declining to comment on Republican attempts to fix a spotlight on him. Besides immigration, Reid over his long career has changed his views as well on same-sex marriage and on gun control.
Reflecting sentiment at the time that the United States was losing control of its borders, Reid in 1993 wrote a tough bill to overhaul what he considered lax U.S. immigration policies, including denying citizenship to children born in the U.S. to undocumented aliens.
On Sept. 20, 1993, he delivered a Senate stemwinder to promote it.
“If making it easy to be an illegal alien is not enough, how about offering a reward for being an illegal immigrant?” Reid said. “No sane country would do that, right? Guess again. If you break our laws by entering this country without permission and give birth to a child, we reward that child with U.S. citizenship and guarantee full access to all public and social services this society provides. And that is a lot of services,” he said.
But Reid in subsequent years put much distance between himself and his “Immigration Stabilization Act.” In a 1999 interview with the Review-Journal, Reid said he had been wrong.
“I didn’t understand the issue,” he said. “I’m embarrassed that I made such a proposal.”
In a 2006 speech Reid called the bill “the biggest mistake I ever made” and apologized for it.
“That is a low point of my legislative career, the low point of my governmental career,” he said.
Nevada has changed much as well. The 1990 census counted Hispanics as 10 percent of its population. Today they make up 27 percent of the population and are a voting bloc of growing importance.
Reid maintained his change of heart was a personal one after he was confronted at the time by his wife, Landra, and after an awkward town hall meeting in Las Vegas attended by longtime friends.
Reid said his wife, whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Russia, rarely weighed in on legislation but made an exception in this case.
“My wife heard that I had done this,” he said. “She, in effect, said: I can’t believe that you have done it. But I had done it.”
“I have done everything since that meeting in Las Vegas, in conversation with my wife, to undo my embarrassment,” he said.
Contact Review-Journal Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC