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A Quarter-Century Later, 1986 Amnesty Still Informs the Immigration Debate

A young man rallies for comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Photo by Richard Morgan

— The last time Congress passed a major immigration bill, one of its goals was to stop the flow of undocumented migrants across the border. But in the years after the bill passed, illegal immigration surged. Today, the bill's legacy has become critical in informing the immigration debate.

Aired 2/6/13 on KPBS News.

In the 1980s, immigration reform was described as a three-legged stool: amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and border and workplace enforcement to prevent future ones.

In 1984, Congress had just killed an immigration bill that would have legalized up to six million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. President Ronald Reagan was one of its most prominent backers.

“I supported this bill. I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in a 1984 debate against Walter Mondale. “I’m going to do everything I can -- and all of us in the administration are -- to join in again when Congress is back at it to get an immigration bill that will give us once again control of our borders.”

Control of the border was key, because the Immigration Reform and Control Act was supposed to solve the nation’s immigration problems.

The bill, which finally passed in 1986, provided for three main reforms: legalizing the millions of immigrants already in the country, increasing border enforcement, and penalties for employers who hired unauthorized workers in order to stop the flow of new illegal immigrants.

“The idea was that if you just granted an amnesty, that would do nothing more than to encourage future illegal immigration," said Peter Nuñez, who was the U.S. attorney for California's southern district at time time, where he prosecuted many immigration cases. He now serves on the board of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for more immigration restrictions.

"And that’s exactly what happened, because the two enforcement provisions never materialized," he said.

After 1986, border security barely improved. Employer penalties weren’t enforced. By 1989, close to two million people were crossing the border illegally each year.

Now, 26 years later, the legacy of that bill is coming back to haunt proponents of a second amnesty, which they now more euphemistically call a path to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants. Like losing coaches studying the post-game video, they’re looking back on the 1986 bill to understand what went wrong.

Conservatives like Nuñez argue that illegal immigration soared because the amnesty encouraged it, and that the same will happen this time.

“All you need to do is look at the lessons we have taught. Come here, and sooner or later, we’ll let you stay," he said.

But this is 2013. A lot has happened in a quarter-century.

“People love to beat up on 1986," said Demetrios Papademetriou, who advised lawmakers on the ’86 bill and now directs the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “Things have changed dramatically. We have invested extraordinary resources in gaining control on the border and in trying to do interior enforcement, which is equally difficult.”

Today, hundreds of miles of fence and thousands more agents line the border. The Obama administration has deported more people and fined more employers than any of its predecessors.

It’s has taken a long time, Papademetriou said, but "is this a failure of 1986? I don’t think so. 1986 allowed the legal requirements that allowed for these things to evolve.”

What he means is that without the 1986 law, it would be difficult for lawmakers or the public to even conceive of immigration reform as they do today. Back then, building up the border seemed a gargantuan task. Fining employers for hiring people who were already in the country was a novel idea.

But today, they’re both happening. Perhaps not the way many would like, but enough for the President to tout those efforts as justification for seeking another amnesty.

Papademetriou said the one big failure of the 1986 bill was that it didn’t allow for future legal immigration to meet workforce needs. That helps explain why illegal immigration soared after 1986, he said, as opposed to the view that migrants came to the U.S. hoping for another amnesty.

While many conservatives don't agree with that assessment, they do agree that in 2013, the legal immigration system is just one more thing that needs fixing.


Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | February 5, 2013 at 10:04 a.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

KPBS, why do you keep giving groups like FAIR or CIS air time or web time? These neo-Malthusian Nativist groups have been exposed for what they are both by liberals AND conservatives: ADL, SPLC, WSJ.

And Mr. Nu~ez gets more than his fair share of 15 minutes from the UT.

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Avatar for user 'jabowery'

jabowery | February 5, 2013 at 12:51 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

The reason people "love to beat up on 1986" is it is an experimental result.

If the Enlightenment teach us anything of value, it is the priority of experiment over argument, evidence over theory.

Indeed, attacking people on an emotional level as do Papademetriou and others, is the primary source of hate.

The argument should not be over whether the government will live up to its promise to enforce the border. That is no longer arguable by anyone seriously interested in the facts.

The argument should be over whether US territory should be open to anyone in the world who wishes to immigrate to the US to become a US citizen that meets basic entry criteria such as lack of a serious criminal record and familiarity with certain key aspects of society in the US. Once the argument has graduated to that stage we can set aside the more base appeals to emotion and talk philosophically about what it means to be a nation and what rights the current citizens a nation have that are not available to all citizens of the world at their will.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | February 5, 2013 at 3:38 p.m. ― 3 years, 2 months ago

The 1986 amnesty failed miserably because it put the cart before the horse.

To even consider amnesty (which is itself an admission of failure), the government must first PROVE that the borders are secure, businesses are being punished for violating labor laws, and illegal immigration is rare and unusual.

Then you can deal with the illegal aliens already in the country.

Mission, what do you think CIS and FAIR are?

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