Memory of immigration reform under Ronald Reagan haunts current debate

“I believe in the idea of amnesty,” President Ronald Reagan said during a debate in 1984. See the video, and another of him and George H.W. Bush talking about immigration in a 1980 debate at
“I believe in the idea of amnesty,” President Ronald Reagan said during a debate in 1984. See the video, and another of him and George H.W. Bush talking about immigration in a 1980 debate at
Published Feb. 4, 2013

WASHINGTON — As the national debate over immigration reform began last week, a GOP-leaning advocacy group circulated talking points for Republicans. Among them: Don't mention Ronald Reagan.

The unusual warning to party faithful reflects the hangover Reagan left over immigration reform in 1986 by granting amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act was pitched as a get-tough moment, with sanctions on employers and beefed-up border control. But it was largely a failure.

The law gave birth to "amnesty" as a slur, and unfulfilled promises about the border sowed distrust that drives a "border-first" mentality today, even as the government has made strides with security. It's the rare sore spot Republicans have with Reagan, whose mixed record on taxes and government spending has been lost to grand efforts to shape him into a monument to conservatism.

"I believe in the idea of amnesty," Reagan once declared.

The memory of 1986 haunts the current debate, providing lessons on what to avoid but also one of the biggest obstacles to success.

"The big problem with immigration is convincing people in the country that it won't turn into a 1986 endgame," conceded Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is among the bipartisan Gang of 8 working toward a bill.

Graham, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the rest of the group are struggling to convince others that the path to citizenship being considered this time is not amnesty because undocumented residents would have to pay fines and go through a series of hoops before getting in back of the line to seek a green card.

Despite early momentum, fueled in part by the GOP's dismal performance among Hispanics in the November elections, the A-word continues to burn hot.

"This is the same old formula that we've dealt with before, including when it passed in 1986, and that is promises of enforcement and immediate amnesty. And of course the promises of enforcement never materialize," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said on a radio show last week. He attacked Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, as "amazingly naive."

Flawed law

The Immigration Reform and Control Act was, in broad terms, no different than the approach being tried today. It was cast as a "three-legged stool" that had improved border security and penalties for hiring illegal immigrants; a temporary agricultural worker program; and legalization of immigrants who arrived in the United States before 1982.

It has become popular for Republican commentators to say Reagan was fooled by Democrats to grant amnesty in exchange for a false promise of tougher border control. But the legislation was pushed by members of both parties and its failure bears bipartisan fingerprints.

"It's revisionist history," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "The narrative is produced by people who have opposed reform."

Lawmakers wrestled with immigration for more than a decade leading up to 1986 and were eager to move on, Papademetriou said. "They felt they took care of the issue. Nobody was going to invest significant money on additional border control." The bill called for a 50 percent increase in Border Patrol officers but did not provide a guarantee for funding.

The tsunami of illegal immigrants did not begin until the 1990s, exposing another shortcoming of the bill Reagan signed. It did not account for demand for low-skilled workers as the economy grew, what is known as "future flow." With no legal avenue, immigrants snuck into the country or overstayed visas.

Employers faced penalties for hiring illegal immigrants but there was little threat. They did not have to verify, for example, that documents workers provided were real. Fakes were common. Immigration officers also could not enter a farm without a search warrant or the owner's permission.

An effort to create a national ID system for workers was stripped out of the legislation under a deluge of criticism, including a last-minute speech by Rep. Edward Roybal, D-Calif., who invoked Nazi Germany.

"Obviously the damn bill didn't work. They took the guts right out," said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wy., a leader at the time.

He said both Republican and Democratic administrations since 1986 failed to execute the law and he is still raw over the exclusion of a "secure identifier" for tracking workers.

"At least we brought 3 million people out of the dark," Simpson added. "Sure it was amnesty. If you're here in the U.S. illegally, you're expendable. You're going to be used up."

Learning from the past

President Barack Obama and some Democrats and immigrant activists are resisting a hard correlation between enforcement and the citizenship pathway, noting an unprecedented amount of resources have been poured into the border and deportations have reached record levels.

But the memory of 1986 is driving Republicans and some Democrats to focus on additional border measures, saying certain (still undefined) criteria must be met before any of the current 11 million undocumented residents can begin to seek legal status.

"If there is not language in this bill that guarantees that nothing else will happen unless these enforcement mechanisms are in place, I won't support it," Rubio told Rush Limbaugh on Tuesday, one of many interviews he has done to sell reform.

Calling the 1986 law "well-intentioned, but counterproductive," Rubio said, "If we're gonna deal with this, let's deal with it once and for all and in a way that this never, ever, happens again."

But convincing opponents is already proving difficult. The conservative National Review editorialized last week that Rubio "is wrong about how to go about repairing our immigration system, and wrong to think that an amnesty-and-enforcement bill at this time will end up being anything other than the unbuttered side of a half-a-loaf deal. And there is no reason to make a bad deal for fear of losing a Latino vote Republicans never had."

Even if Rubio and his Senate partners can craft a bill that satisfied various viewpoints, the past weighs heavily in the House, where most Republicans are tucked into reliably red districts.

"The trick is to design a bill that doesn't have the same flaws as the 1986 one," said Walter Ewing, senior researcher at the Immigration Policy Center. "It's very hard to do but it's doable. If you do it carefully and rationally, without too much inflammatory rhetoric poisoning the process."

Harder tone

Rhetoric surrounding the debate has run hot for years, including the recent presidential election when Mitt Romney promised to be so tough on immigrants they would "self-deport." The election results, in which Obama took 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, shook the GOP.

One of the messages: Watch what you say. The GOP-leaning Hispanic Leadership Network circulated a list of talking points to Republicans last week urging a different tone. Do use the term "undocumented immigrant," don't use "illegals" or "aliens," the group instructed. "Don't use phrases like 'send them all back,' 'electric fence,' 'build a wall along the entire border.' It concluded, "Don't use President Reagan's immigration reform as an example applicable today."

The difference between Republican views in the 1980s and today is striking.

During a 1980 debate with George H.W. Bush, Reagan talked about open borders.

"Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don't we work out some recognition of our mutual problems? Make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit — and then while they're working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back, they can go back. And open the border both ways by understanding their problems."

In his farewell address Reagan talked about a "shining city on a hill" — now a mantra of modern Republicanism. "And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here," Reagan said.

"He spoke out in a way that would alienate many modern Republicans," said Stephen Knott, who has written books about the former president. He said Reagan was influenced by his time as governor of California, where agricultural workers from Mexico were critical, and sided with his more libertarian advisers against a national identifier.

Reagan faithful say that he would have not stood for the porous borders and that his vision of amnesty was that it was a one-time deal. More than a quarter century later, it hangs over the debate.

"If you want to drag up old laundry, go ahead," said former Sen. Simpson. "It's not how we got here. It's what the hell do you do now?"

Contact Alex Leary at