“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 open the border both ways by understanding their problems.”
I am willing to bet if you ask Americans who spoke those words, most would get the answer wrong. Sounds like something Obama would say, or perhaps Bill Clinton or one of the democratic leaders of the senate. Well, it’s none of those. In fact those words were uttered by a Republican, Ronald Reagan, who in 1986 pushed through the only amnesty bill that we have seen. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants who had been in the United States before 1982, but made it a crime to hire illegal immigrants. The idea was to regularize the status of those already here and tighten border and employment controls to discourage further illegal immigration.
The only other president to offer an amnesty bill was Republican George Bush in 2007. Yet to read the press you’d think Republicans are vile racists who despise immigrants and want a fence to keep them out. One writer in National Review Online said:
“Immigration has loomed larger as an issue in the Republican presidential debates than it does in the minds of most voters. Driven by a minority of activists in their party, the candidates have been drawn into an unhealthy competition to see who can sound the harshest in cracking down on low-skilled illegal immigrants from Latin America. So far the biggest loser in the competition is the Republican Party. The party is losing out because the rhetoric brings us no closer to actually solving the problem, while driving away voters crucial to the party’s long-term success.’
What is true is that immigration is still a hot button issue. It looms large not just in the minds of Republican candidates, but in the mind of President Obama just as much if not more so. And it is not just a minority of activists. When asked whether the government was doing enough to control the border and screen those allowed into the country, 76 percent said the government was not doing enough and only 19 percent said the government was doing enough. While self-identified conservatives were the most likely to think not enough was being done (83 percent), 74 percent of liberals and 75 percent of moderates also indicated that enforcement was insufficient.
Reagan and Bush were friendly to immigration
National Review says ‘Conservatives should be friendly to immigration, and the first to seek expanded opportunities for legal immigration.’ Reagan and Bush were conservatives. No one can accuse them of raising hopes with campaign promises to make comprehensive immigration reform a top priority and then running for cover when the political storm hit. What president Obama said is that the “congress did not have the stomach” to take up immigration reform now. The president expends all of his efforts battling states that dare to enforce the present provisions of the same 1986 law that granted amnesty.
The 1986 amnesty legislation called for a three-pronged approach: amnesty, tighter border security and employer sanctions: Amnesty was aimed at two sets of undocumented immigrants: those already rooted in the United States and agriculture workers. Supporters said undocumented immigrants would be allowed to come out of the shadows, pay taxes and climb the economic ladder. Critics feared it would spur more illegal immigration and unfairly reward lawbreakers.
• Border security called for a 50 percent increase in Border Patrol agents, up from the nearly 3,700 at the time.
• President Reagan described the employer sanctions as the bill's "keystone." The sanctions created fines for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers and criminal penalties for repeat offenders. The fines ranged from $250 to $10,000 for each unlawful worker. Reagan and supporters said cracking down on employers would deplete the job magnet drawing undocumented immigrants to the United States.
Back to the future
Now once more, we are right back where we started. It seems we want to cherry pick the law taking what suits us and discarding the parts we don’t like. Over 3 million people were granted amnesty in 1986. But because we failed to enforce the sanctions for hiring unauthorized workers we are once again in the same conundrum in which we found ourselves when amnesty was granted in 1986. This time the number of illegal immigrants has quadrupled to 12 million.
The job magnet wasn't turned off. The government never followed through on the promise to crack down on employers. The government at times tried to come down hard, but then backed off after outcries from employers, the ACLU and other activist, pro immigrant organizations.
One side sees illegal immigration as a law enforcement issue. Weak enforcement of employer sanctions, coupled with amnesty under the 1986 law, encouraged undocumented immigrants to keep coming. The other sees illegal immigration as an issue of supply and demand. Advocates on both sides need to agree that employer sanctions must be strictly enforced and they must include a mandatory, fraud-proof verification program for employers; e-verify is a good start. But I have been unable to find a single pro immigration organization that is willing to concede its necessity or usefulness.
President Reagan and other supporters said the reforms would close the door to illegal immigration, protect the sovereignty of the United States and help the country regain control of the border. That has not happened. Not a single proposal escapes the poison pen of short sighted liberals. Any mention of enforcement of provisions of the law calling for employer sanctions is savaged as anti immigrant. The avalanche of criticism aimed at every proposal aimed at correcting the mistakes of 1986 is not helping but hurting the cause of immigrants.