What Trump Could Learn From the Reagan Immigration Amnesty
The Reagan amnesty of 2.7 million illegal immigrants was paired with the promise of controlling the border.
It’s been more than 30 years since then-Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., paid a visit to the White House to lean on President Ronald Reagan about enacting what today is viewed by some as the “Reagan amnesty.”
In his book, Reagan: The Life, H.W. Brands writes about the president’s interpretation of a 1986 immigration bill at the time.
“Al Simpson came by to see if he had my support,” Reagan recorded in October 1986, shortly after the measure cleared the House. “They have one or two amendments we could do without, but even if the Senate conference can’t get them out, I’ll sign it. It’s high time we regained control of our borders, and this bill will do it.”
The legislation at the time was widely viewed as an enforcement-first measure, said then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who advised Reagan on the matter along with other Cabinet officials.
“It is very definitely a teachable moment,” Meese, the Ronald Reagan distinguished fellow emeritus at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal, when asked how the 1986 legislation might inform President Donald Trump in his negotiations with congressional Democrats on codifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), implemented by his predecessor.
The Reagan amnesty of 2.7 million illegal immigrants was paired with the promise of controlling the border and penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants. The legislation was better known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, named for its sponsors, Simpson and then-Rep. Romano Mazzoli, D-Ky.
The problem with the 1986 law was that the promised enforcement didn’t occur, but the amnesty did, Meese said.
“It’s high time we regained control of our borders, and this bill will do it,” Ronald Reagan said.
DACA is a 2012 executive action by President Barack Obama that has shielded an estimated 800,000 illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.
If Trump agrees to a deal that couples enforcement with legalization, Meese said, he ought to insist on demonstrable security upfront, rather than funding in future budgets.
Immediate matters could include E-Verify, which requires employers to check the legal status of job applicants, stricter penalties on employers for hiring illegal immigrants, increased border patrol, and prohibiting sanctuary cities, Meese said.
At the bill signing in 1986, Reagan said the Immigration Reform and Control Act struck the right balance.
“Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship,” he said.
More than three decades later, through illegal border crossings, the number of illegal immigrants in the country has nearly quadrupled to an estimated 11 million, and Congress has considered numerous other bills that would have traded amnesty for increased enforcement, just as Trump is weighing today.
Bipartisan Immigration Reform
The bill, first introduced in 1981, was a modified version of the recommendations of the bipartisan Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, chaired by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, at the time the president of Notre Dame. The commission had 16 members — four from the Senate, four from the House, four Cabinet members, and four members of the public.
Hesburgh warned about the need for stricter border enforcement, writing in the final report: “[I]f U.S. immigration policy is to serve this nation’s interests, it must be enforced effectively. This nation has a responsibility to its people — citizens and resident aliens — and failure to enforce immigration law means not living up to that responsibility.”
On amnesty, the final report also said, “A drawn-out mechanism for establishing eligibility for legalization, however, will only perpetuate an already serious problem. The Select Commission favors a specified, one-time-only period during which applicants for legalization could come forward.”
The proposal was pushed many times before finally passing both the House and Senate in 1986.
Reagan and his Cabinet anticipated the strict provisions laid out in the legislation would be enforced, Meese said.
“There were actual promises at the time that, going forward, there would be stronger border enforcement,” he said. “We felt it worth a try, as a means of stopping illegal immigration. I agreed with [Reagan], along with the rest of the Cabinet, about trying out the commission’s recommendations.”
Although bipartisan, the legislation also had significant opposition.
Antonia Martinez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said that some of the enforcement and ID measures would turn Mexican-Americans into a “suspect class.”
Mazzoli stressed that Congress had spent five years making adjustments to the legislation and declared 1986 was “now or never.”
“They say a cat has nine lives. This bill has no more lives. It cannot pop up out of any more graves,” the Kentucky lawmaker said. “It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s the least-imperfect bill we will ever have before us.”
Then-Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., proposed an amendment to strike the amnesty provision from the bill, calling it “slapping the face” of those who came to the United States legally and warning that as many as 20 million illegal immigrants would be entitled to bring their family members into the country through chain migration. His amendment failed by a slim 199-192 vote in the House.
Regarding the amnesty, Simpson said, “I would never have suggested or recommended [it]. But it became quite clear [it] was necessary for final passage.” He called the legislation “sure as hell a lot better than anything we’ve got now.”
Then-Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. — now the Democratic leader in the Senate negotiating directly with Trump on DACA — said in 1986, “Nobody’s certain it’s going to work. But everyone was certain that the present situation is just terrible. So if it doesn’t work, we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.”
When signing the bill on Nov. 6, 1986, Reagan called it the most sweeping immigration reform since 1952.
“This legislation takes a major step toward meeting this challenge to our sovereignty. At the same time, it preserves and enhances the nation’s heritage of legal immigration,” Reagan said.
The president talked about the essential components of the new law:
It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities which draw illegal aliens here.
We have consistently supported a legalization program which is both generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people throughout the world who seek legally to come to America.
The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society.
Very soon, many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.
Manuel Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association, likened the legislation to the Emancipation Proclamation, according to the Brands book.
There was another consideration, said Craig Shirley, a presidential historian and Reagan biographer.
“Everybody forgets the Cold War was still at its peak. Reagan did not want to hand [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev a propaganda victory by forcibly evicting masses of immigrants,” Shirley told The Daily Signal. “A lot of these immigrants at the time were not economic refugees, but political refugees, coming here to escape communist regimes in Nicaragua and El Salvador.”
The Reagan administration planned enforcement, but subsequent administrations showed little interest in enforcing the laws after amnesty was in place, said Shirley.
“Reagan was focused on a bill about enforcement, learning the language, paying back taxes,” he said, adding that Reagan’s immediate successor, George H.W. Bush, was a problem. “The Bush administration never enforced the law, and neither did subsequent administrations.”
Simpson and Mazzoli agreed in a Washington Post op-ed column about 20 years after their bill passed. Their piece appeared at about the time a comprehensive immigration reform package — that also exchanged increased border security for amnesty — had the backing of President George W. Bush.
The two sponsors wrote:
Although we do have pride of authorship, we also believe that the shortcomings of the act are not due to design failure, but rather to the failure of both Democratic and Republican administrations since 1986 to execute the law properly …
All administrations since 1986 have allocated funding and personnel resources more generously to the task of securing the border than to enforcing IRCA in the workplace. Why? One answer is that there are never enough federal budget resources.
Another is that administrations of both stripes are loath to disrupt economic activities — i.e., labor supply in factories, farms and businesses.
Enforcement also became very complicated, said Steven F. Hayward, a historian and Reagan biographer.
“There were some early steps about employment enforcement, but a system quickly emerged for forged documents, especially Social Security cards, on a massive scale that made a farce of the whole thing,” Hayward told The Daily Signal. “The number of illegal aliens who received amnesty at that time was tiny compared to today’s numbers.”
Teachable Moment for Trump
The big problem with Reagan’s deal in 1986 and Trump’s pending deal is that such deals tend to spin out of control, said James Jay Carafano, a vice president for national security at The Heritage Foundation.
“We think the lesson of 1986 is there is no deal you can make that’s satisfactory,” Carafano told The Daily Signal. “Amnesties undermine border enforcement and enforcing immigration law and just encourage more illegal migration, so any deal is self-defeating.”
Neither Congress nor the executive branch followed through after the 1986 deal was cut, Carafano said.
“That would certainly be the case here,” he said. “Any deal would just be seen as the first step towards open borders and the left would undermine future enforcement at every opportunity. We are against deals on immigration and border security. Easy issue–ought to be dealt with on its own. The last thing we want is a mini … gang of eight bill.”
If Trump is intent on some deal, there are certain demands he should make so as not to repeat the Simpson-Mazzoli law, Hayward said.
“I think President Trump has to insist that employment E-Verify, funding for serious border security, not necessarily a wall, and an end to chain migration have to be non-negotiable conditions of any deal,” Hayward said. “Reagan should have applied to immigration what he said about arms control with the Soviet Union, ‘Trust, but verify,’ or in this case, ‘Trust, but E-Verify.’ That’s the lesson Trump should take.”
Beyond stricter policies, Trump and other politicians should emulate Reagan’s attitude toward one specific aspect of immigration.
“Reagan made a huge point of assimilation, of how people from any land could become Americans in the deepest sense, by adopting the nation’s principles of freedom,” Hayward said. “You could meaningfully become an American in a way that you could never become a Frenchman or a German.
“The left hates this idea, so if Trump was to talk about it, it would be another way for him to maintain the offensive on the subject,” Hayward continued. “Neither George W. Bush, nor John McCain, nor Marco Rubio had the sense to make this point when they were working on the issue over the last decade.”
Shirley hopes Trump will demand upfront security in exchange for enacting DACA, but isn’t optimistic.
“Trump squished out on it,” Shirley said of DACA. “At his core, making deals and getting good press is what animates Donald Trump, not conservative principles.”
DACA negotiators should consider something the 1986 negotiators didn’t, said Lee Edwards, distinguished fellow of conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation.
“The hope was to curtail illegal immigration with stricter border controls and penalties on employers. The question is, how do you police that? Is it just a piece of paper, or will it have teeth?” Edwards told The Daily Signal.
“Reagan may have felt this was a good thing to do. With his Irish ancestry, he was sympathetic to the idea. It was a feel-good bill, and he was told, ‘We’ll make sure there is border security.’”
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