Harry Reid’s Complicated Relationship with Immigration Policy

Harry Reid, the long-time senator from Nevada, and his party’s leader in the Senate for many years, died on Tuesday.

Most people who follow the immigration debate closely probably remember him as the former boxer, turned bare-knuckles Senate majority leader, who succeeded in getting a massive illegal alien amnesty bill approved by the Senate in 2013. The bill died in the Republican-controlled House, denying then-President Barack Obama the chance to sign it into law.

But before Harry Reid was a champion of mass amnesty and mass immigration, he was a staunch opponent of open borders and a harsh critic of the impact that unchecked immigration has on American workers, taxpayers, and natural resources. Reid actually worked with FAIR to craft legislation that would have slashed immigration by two-thirds. He articulately expressed his reasons for proposing a bill he called the Immigration Stabilization Act in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times.

So how did Harry Reid, the immigration restrictionist and border hawk of the mid-1990s, turn into the mass amnesty firebrand of the mid-2010s? The dichotomy is probably best explained by a profile of Reid’s political legacy published this past summer in The Nation. (For those who may not be familiar with The Nation, it is ideologically one baby-step to the right of Antifa.) As The Nation article points out, Reid had no real political ideology. His only motivating factor was political power, and throughout his career he was willing to do whatever was needed to gain power and wield it.

Though the article does not get into his 180-degree turn on immigration, it does provide important context. In the mid-1990s, the battleground for political power was to win over voters in the center. Bill Clinton came to power by positioning himself as a moderate who wanted to reform welfare, control government spending, and even secure the border. Then-Senator Joe Biden (a Reid-like political chameleon) was busy promoting a tough on crime bill. California’s Republican governor Pete Wilson successfully parlayed opposition to mass illegal immigration into a re-election victory in an increasingly Blue state. None of this was lost on Harry Reid, the consummate political animal, who decided that there was unmined political gold for the Democratic Party and for himself in taking a strong position against mass immigration and in favor of secure borders.

By the time 2013 rolled around, the political ground had shifted and so did Reid. Barack Obama had demonstrated that Democrats could win elections by turning out the far left flank of its base and one of the issues that motivated those voters to show up at the polls was mass amnesty and open borders. Reid’s lack of an ideological compass allowed him to pivot quickly to the left and open the Democratic Party’s door wide to activists who would eventually form the nucleus of The Squad and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who constitute nearly half of all House Democrats.

As we head into 2022, polling indicates that just one year into the Biden administration and full control of Congress by the leftward lurching Democrats, the pendulum may have swung too far and the party is likely to pay a heavy price in November. Perhaps if Harry Reid were still around he might have recognized the changing tides and adjusted course once again, because, for him, political power was always the ultimate objective. But, of course, we’ll never know.

About Author


Ira joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 1986 with experience as a journalist, professor of journalism, special assistant to Gov. Richard Lamm (Colorado), and press secretary of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. His columns have appeared in National Review, LA Times, NY Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and more. He is an experienced TV and radio commentator.