One afternoon in July 1985, President Ronald Reagan met with his domestic policy council in the White House. The question: Should he keep pushing legislation to offer amnesty to undocumented migrants?
Many Reagan aides wanted to drop his bid for amnesty, the term for granting legal status to people in the country illegally. Reagan’s pollster had told him that the public opposed amnesty. And the president’s championing of amnesty legislation had produced bitter defeats in 1982 and 1984.
But amnesty had one stalwart supporter in the room: Ronald Reagan himself.
Recently, at Reagan’s presidential library, I read the records on the legislation that became the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Today, IRCA doesn’t get much respect; it’s long been dismissed across the political spectrum as “the failed amnesty law.” Its central idea, of broad forgiveness and legal status for undocumented immigrants, is completely out of political fashion today.
But while studying the records, I was struck by how different the reality of amnesty was in 1986 versus its reputation in 2018. The 1986 law was carefully conceived, realistic and humane — reflecting the practical wisdom of a California president.
The records show Reagan was personally engaged on immigration. When aides talked about the supposed dangers of immigration, Reagan shifted the conversation to specific stories of undocumented immigrants in California who suffered because of their lesser legal status.
Reagan and the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., determined to go forward with the legislation for two big reasons.
First, they saw legalization as essential to protecting and integrating immigrants.
“The work to be done is to avoid seeing this nation populated with a furtive illegal subclass of human beings who are afraid to go to the cops, afraid to go to a hospital … or afraid to go to their employer,” Simpson later wrote Reagan.
Second, and more important, both men were worried that immigrants would be used as political scapegoats if they weren’t legalized. “If we do not choose to have immigration reform in the near future, the alternative will not just be the status quo,” Simpson said while reintroducing the legislation in 1986. “No, the alternative instead will be an increased public intolerance — a failure of compassion, if you will — toward all forms of immigration and types of entrants.”
The bill did pass, and it forestalled Simpson’s nightmare — but only for a while. Today, immigration restrictionists blame the 1986 law for our bitter conflicts over immigration. But they have it backward. Today’s immigration problems result from our collective failure to understand what made the 1986 law important and successful.
The law actually had two big pieces. One — the more successful piece — was amnesty.
Under the two-step amnesty process, more than 3 million people applied for temporary residency, which lasted 18 months. In the second phase, 2.7 million people received permanent residency as a result of the law. Still, 2 million people did not legalize their status.
Why not? The law was not generous enough. It covered only immigrants who had arrived before 1982, excluding newer immigrants. Some undocumented immigrants feared making themselves known, while others didn’t know about the program, because outreach came late in the window for legalization. Some were discouraged by the federal government’s bureaucratic legalization process of security checks, document checks, and English and civics requirements.
In retrospect, the process should have covered all immigrants and established a regular amnesty process every few years, because the demand for labor was certain to keep attracting new immigrants. But in many ways, amnesty was a success story — it gave millions of people the legal status they required to have a better life. It even turned a $100 million profit for the government (through the fees it charged applicants). And while immigration restrictionists still claim that amnesty encouraged more undocumented immigrants to come, studies show the opposite: Amnesty produced a decline in the number of illegal entries into the country.
Reagan, in signing it, predicted these successes: “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.”
But the law’s other big piece drew more debate in 1986, and was more influential in turning immigration into an American quagmire: a new enforcement regime that prohibited hiring and employing the undocumented.
That regime didn’t stop undocumented immigration. Neither have the ensuing 30 years of new enforcement and restrictions of all kinds of undocumented immigration. Instead, such laws have made it nearly impossible for undocumented persons to legalize their status, thus adding to the numbers of people who stay in America but live in the shadows. Even immigrants who arrive legally and apply for legal status are effectively turned into lawbreakers by the laws and bureaucracy. American immigration policy is now Kafkaesque: In the name of stopping illegal immigration, we make all immigrants illegal.
President Trump has extended this obsession with criminalizing immigrants to refugees and children.
Today, both advocates and opponents of immigration follow the same script: prioritizing increased spending on border security and increased illegalness. If they offer a path to legal status, it is so long and bureaucratic as to be worthless.
It’s time to flip that script. Make amnesty, not border security, the starting point on immigration. The stance should be: not one penny for enforcement until we have an amnesty that covers all our undocumented neighbors.
Amnesty is wise policy for reasons that go beyond immigration. The United States is not just anxious and polarized now: It’s downright unforgiving. In our public sphere, we never forgive a single sin of those who trespass against us.
Americans need amnesty not to forgive our immigrants. We need amnesty so that we might forgive ourselves.
(Author Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.)
(First President Ronald Reagan, then President George H.W. Bush, extended amnesty to undocumented migrants. There was no political explosion then comparable to the one Republicans are threatening now. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite: AP)