GOP Immigration Stance Far From Reagan Reforms

Published June 10, 2004

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As the nation mourns the passing of former President Ronald Reagan, many observers have remarked upon the extent to which Reagan shaped our recent history.

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese said that Reagan had taken conservatism, which until Reagan's election had been mainly an intellectual movement, and converted it into a governing movement. President Reagan left his mark on fiscal and defense policy, and, arguably, established America’s present position in the world.

Reagan also left his mark on America’s immigration policy. The country has spent much of the last week looking back upon Reagan’s two administrations, and it’s worth looking back at what has happened to the nation's immigration policy since the historic immigration reforms Reagan signed into law in 1986. As well-intentioned and rational as they were, the 1986 immigration reforms—and what has happened since they became law—show just how damaging another illegal immigration amnesty (search) would be to our country.

In 1986, there were about 2.5 million illegal aliens in the U.S. who Congress and the Reagan administration regarded as being “safe” – that is, not having committed serious crimes or otherwise being dangerous, and having sufficient ties to American life to be allowed to remain here. Many members of Congress, chiefly Democratic members, regarded the amnesty of these illegal aliens a sine qua non of any attempt to reform our immigration laws. Reagan recognized this, and, being the optimist that he was, saw something humane and profitable in affording this relatively small group of illegal aliens legal status.

In exchange for legal status for the group, Reagan insisted that the magnet attracting illegal aliens to the United States be removed by extinguishing any incentive for U.S. employers to hire illegal aliens. In tandem with the amnesty, Reagan campaigned for employer sanctions for hiring illegal aliens, sanctions so stringent that many at the time regarded them as draconian.

Reagan reasoned that if an employer were fined for hiring an illegal alien (as much as $1 million in the worst cases), any payroll savings achieved by the hiring would be wiped out by the fine. In effect, it would be more expensive to hire illegal aliens than to hire Americans or lawful permanent residents. The few illegal aliens who continued to take the gamble and cross the border would be intercepted by a robust and more generously funded Border Patrol.

While Reagan’s 1986 immigration reforms (search) can at least be called rational, they were a failure. Today, there are between 8 million and 11 million illegal aliens in the United States. The majority of them crossed our southern border and has found employment — illegal employment, but employment nonetheless. This is attributed to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s eventual gutting of the enforcement mechanism for Reagan's employer sanctions, and successive administrations refusing to give our Border Patrol the resources it needs to achieve its mission.

In 1986, though, President Reagan showed a clear recognition between wrong and right. If U.S. employers were to gain from the employment of people whose very presence in our country was a crime, then they would at least have to pay for it.

How far we’ve come since 1986. At the moment, there are two amnesty bills pending in Congress, and both predicate an illegal aliens’ eligibility on the very thing that President Reagan fought so hard to stamp out: illegal alien employment.

Democrats Ted Kennedy and Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois’ 4th District have sponsored the Safe, Orderly, Legal Visas & Enforcement Act, or SOLVE Act (search) (HR 4262). Long on visas and short on any actual enforcement, the law would give a visa, and eventually a green card, to any illegal alien who has worked an aggregate 24 months in the U.S. at any time.

The AgJOBS (search) bill (HR 3142), which has 62 co-sponsors in the Senate alone, is the Republican version of an amnesty bill. It is somewhat more modest in its employment requirement, though, giving green card eligibility to any illegal alien who can demonstrate 100 days of agricultural employment before Aug. 31, 2003.

One of the AgJOBS bill’s co-sponsors is Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. I asked his office if the senator detected any tension between President Reagan’s outlawing of employment for illegal aliens and AgJOBS’ affirmative requirement that an illegal alien be employed in the U.S. before he is eligible for the amnesty.

The senator was not immediately available for comment.

It’s been said that toward the end of his life, President Reagan’s illness prevented him from recognizing even familiar and beloved things. Had he been in perfect health, he might have had difficulty recognizing today’s Republican party on the issue of immigration.

Matt Hayes began practicing immigration law shortly after graduating from Pace University School of Law in 1994, representing new immigrants in civil and criminal matters. He is the author of The New Immigration Law and Practice, to be published in October.

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