Reagan Would Not Repeat Amnesty Mistake

This is the fifth in an occasional series of exclusive articles in which leading conservatives who served in the Reagan Administration explain how they believe the principles of Reagan conservatism ought to be applied today and in the coming years. This week, Edwin Meese, who was Reagan’s first presidential counselor and then attorney general, addresses immigration.

What would Ronald Reagan do? I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked that question, on virtually every issue imaginable.

As much as we all want clarity and certainty, I usually refrain from specific answers. That’s because it is very difficult to directly translate particular political decisions to another context, in another time. The better way to answer the question—and the way President Reagan himself would approach such questions—is to understand Reagan’s principles and how they should apply in today’s politics, and review past decisions and consider what lessons they have for us.

Immigration is one area where Reagan’s principles can guide us, and the lessons are instructive.

I was attorney general two decades ago during the debate over what became the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. President Reagan, acting on the recommendation of a bipartisan task force, supported a comprehensive approach to the problem of illegal immigration, including adjusting the status of what was then a relatively small population. Since the Immigration and Naturalization Service was then in the Department of Justice, I had the responsibility for directing the implementation of that plan.

President Reagan set out to correct the loss of control at our borders. 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.

He also agreed with the legislation in adjusting the status of immigrants—even if they had entered illegally—who were law-abiding long-term residents, many of whom had children in the United States. 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. It wasn’t automatic. They 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.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are pretty much the same provisions included in the Comprehensive Reform Act of 2006, which its supporters claim is not amnesty. In the end, slight differences in process do not change the overriding fact that the 1986 law and the recent Senate legislation both include an amnesty. The difference is that President Reagan called it for what it was.

Lesson of 1986

The lesson from the 1986 experience is that such an amnesty did not solve the problem. There was extensive document fraud, and the number of people applying for amnesty far exceeded projections. And there was a failure of political will to enforce new laws against employers. After a brief slowdown, illegal immigration returned to high levels and continued unabated, forming the nucleus of today’s large population of illegal aliens.

So here we are, 20 years later, having much the same debate and being offered much the same deal.

What would President Reagan do? For one thing, he would not repeat the mistakes of the past, including those of his own administration. He knew that secure borders are vital, and would now insist on meeting that priority first. He would seek to strengthen the enforcement of existing immigration laws. He would employ new tools—like biometric technology for identification, and cameras, sensors and satellites to monitor the border—that make enforcement and verification less onerous and more effective.

One idea President Reagan had at the time that we might also try improving on is to create a pilot program that would allow genuinely temporary workers to come to the United States—a reasonable program consistent with security and open to the needs and dynamics of our market economy.

And what about those already here? Today it seems to me that the fair policy, one that will not encourage further illegal immigration, is to give those here illegally the opportunity to correct their status by returning to their country of origin and getting in line with everyone else. This, along with serious enforcement and control of the illegal inflow at the border—a combination of incentives and disincentives—will significantly reduce over time our population of illegal immigrants.

Lastly, we should remember Reagan’s commitment to the idea that America must remain open and welcoming to those yearning for freedom. As a nation based on ideas, Ronald Reagan believed that that there was something unique about America and that anyone, from anywhere, could become an American. That means that while we seek to meet the challenge of illegal immigration, we must keep open the door of opportunity by preserving and enhancing our heritage of legal immigration—assuring that those who choose to come here permanently become Americans. In the end, it was his principled policy—and it should be ours—to “humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.”