Politics & Policy

What Would Reagan Do?

A look into The Reagan Diaries for immigration help.

Today is the official release date for The Reagan Diaries. Ronald Reagan was one of a handful of American presidents who kept a daily journal while in office. Historian Douglas Brinkley has gone through them and edited the volume that hits bookstores today.

No doubt there is something for everyone in there. But particularly timely is an entry from October 16, 1986, in which President Reagan wrote:

Thursday, October 16

Al Simpson came by to see if he had my support. After 5 yrs. of trying (during which I’ve been on his side) the House finally passed his immigration bill. They have one or two amendments we could do without but even if the Sen. In conf. cannot get them out, I’ll sign. It’s high time we regained control of our borders and this bill will do this.

Reagan did, in fact, sign the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. And, in case you didn’t notice, the bill didn’t exactly do what Reagan thought it would. “The 1986 act did not solve our illegal immigration problem,” Reagan’s attorney general Ed Meese acknowledged in the New York Times last year — for the benefit of the blind, I guess.

Commenting on last year’s version of the McCain-Kennedy “comprehensive” immigration package, Meese wrote:

In the mid-80’s, many members of Congress — pushed by the Democratic majority in the House and the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy — 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 I supported his decision.

In exchange for allowing aliens to stay, he decided, border security and enforcement of immigration laws would be greatly strengthened — in particular, through sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants. If jobs were the attraction for illegal immigrants, then cutting off that option was crucial.

Beyond this, most illegal immigrants who could establish that they had resided in America continuously for five years would be granted temporary resident status, which could be upgraded to permanent residency after 18 months and, after another five years, to citizenship.

Note that this path to citizenship was not automatic. Indeed, the legislation stipulated several conditions: 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. Sound familiar? These are pretty much the same provisions included in the new Senate proposal and cited by its supporters as proof that they have eschewed amnesty in favor of earned citizenship.

The difference is that President Reagan called this what it was: amnesty. Indeed, look up the term “amnesty” in Black’s Law Dictionary, and you’ll find it says, “the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for undocumented aliens already in the country.”

Like the amnesty bill of 1986, the current Senate proposal would place those who have resided illegally in the United States on a path to citizenship, provided they meet a similar set of conditions and pay a fine and back taxes. The illegal immigrant does not go to the back of the line but gets immediate legalized status, while law-abiding applicants wait in their home countries for years to even get here. And that’s the line that counts. In the end, slight differences in process do not change the overriding fact that the 1986 law and today’s bill are both amnesties.

Twenty-one years later, Washington debates another immigration bill. Meese’s colleague Brian Darling, the Heritage Foundation’s director of Senate relations, warns: “This compromise is much more harmful for America than the ’86 amnesty. The Z-Visa and pathway to citizenship contain minimal fees and fines that don’t change the fact that this is a 1986 style Amnesty. The triggers new deportable offenses and border security are window dressing for the massive Amnesty Z visas. This is the 1986 Amnesty all over again on a massive scale.”

What would Reagan do? For a start, he’d probably look to history, and avoid making the same miscalculation twice.

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