WASHINGTON — When Ronald Reagan signed a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 1986, he confidently predicted: “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.”
More than a quarter-century later, however, that law has not turned out to be the triumph that Reagan envisioned. Instead, those on both sides of the immigration reform debate see it as a cautionary lesson.
As President Barack Obama and lawmakers from both parties begin to take their first tentative steps toward again rewriting the nation’s immigration reform laws, opponents warn that they are repeating the mistakes of the 1986 act, which failed to solve the problems that it set out to address. Critics contend that the law actually contributed to making the situation worse.
There were an estimated 3 million to 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States when the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed. Now there are upwards of 11 million. And the question of who gets to be an American, far from being settled, has been inflamed.
The latest immigration reform proposals contain the same three components as the 1986 law: a legalization program — and a possible path to citizenship — for those who are in the country illegally; stepped-up enforcement of the border; and measures to discourage employers from hiring workers who lack proof of their legal residency.
“This is the same old formula we’ve dealt with before, including when it passed in 1986, and that is promise of enforcement and immediate amnesty,” Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said last week on the conservative Laura Ingraham radio show. “And of course, the promises of enforcement never materialize. The amnesty happens immediately, the millisecond the bill is signed into law.”
But immigration experts note that the country has undergone big changes since then. And the experience of what went wrong after 1986 might help policymakers get it right this time.
“There’s just an entirely different mentality,” said Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration and who now directs immigration policy studies at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Immigration reform in a post-9/11 world
Technology affords new means of enforcing sanctions against hiring illegal immigrants, for instance, and Americans in the post-9/11 world may have lost some of their squeamishness about carrying tamper-proof government identification or submitting personal information to a national database. Meanwhile, businesses are eager to come up with a legal system of immigration that can more quickly adapt to their constantly changing labor needs.
Still, “the problem is always in the details, and that was certainly true in 1986. Once the debate got into the details, the compromises proved to be counterproductive,” said Susan Martin, director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, who in the 1990s served as executive director of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.
The most obvious difference between now and a quarter-century ago is demographic. In those days, the Latino vote was not much of a political factor outside a handful of states. Only 3 percent of those who cast ballots in the 1984 presidential election were Hispanic; last year, Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate. Their growing numbers and increasingly Democratic tilt were considered a crucial factor in Obama’s victory, as well as a serious problem for Republicans in the future.
What also expanded was the national sense of crisis surrounding the issue. At the time the law was passed, Meissner said, illegal immigration had a significant impact in only a half-dozen states — New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Illinois and California.
Now, thanks largely to the demand for labor during the economic boom of the 1990s, illegal immigration has become a high-priority issue in virtually every state, including places such as Alabama, Iowa, Georgia and Nebraska.