In the mid-’80s, many Members of Congress advocated amnesty for long-settled illegal immigrants. President Reagan considered it reasonable to adjust the status of what was then a relatively small population, and as his attorney general, I supported his decision.
The path to citizenship was not automatic. Immigrants had to pay application fees, learn to speak English, understand American civics, pass a medical exam, and register for military selective service. Those with convictions for a felony or three misdemeanors were ineligible.
Today they call it a “roadmap to citizenship.” Ronald Reagan called it “amnesty.” And he was right.
The 1986 reform did not solve our immigration problem—in fact, the population of illegal immigrants has nearly quadrupled since that “comprehensive” bill.
Why didn’t it work? Well, one reason is that everything else the 1986 bill promised—from border security to law enforcement—was to come later. It never did. Only amnesty prevailed, and that encouraged more illegal immigration.
Today, we have many of the same needs we did then. We need to work on better securing our border. We need to modernize our legal immigration system, including effective temporary worker programs. And we need strong enforcement of the laws we already have, including those that enforce immigration policies in the workplace.
The Gang of Eight is making promises now. “Border security” is a big promise. But their proposal spends money and grants amnesty without the guarantee that this promise will be kept.
We are having much the same debate and being offered much the same deal in exchange for promises largely dependent on the will of future Congresses and Presidents.
Instead, we should learn from our mistakes.