Good Intentions And The Unintended Consequences Of The 1986 “Reagan Amnesty”

Illegal aliens wait on US side of Rio Grande river in LaredoEarlier this month, with the country’s eyes on a completely different issue thanks in part to mainstream media negligence and malfeasance, Barack Obama announced some sort of administrative move on legalizing millions of illegal immigrants in the United States.  There is a question of just what the nature of the order is from Jerome Corsi of World Net Daily, but when it comes down to it, the Occupier of the Oval Office stated the administration’s intention to not enforce immigration laws on the books.  This is, for all intents and purposes, amnesty on a large scale for illegals living here.

The nature of the order itself, naturally, is illegal.  Unlike the 1986 “Amnesty” that has been touted as, “Well, Reagan did it too” whatever is being attempted did not go through Congress.  In 1986, there actually was a bill – The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 sponsored by former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former representative Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) – that sought to do exactly what is being given lip service today from all sectors and parties: control the border, and put into place a path to citizenship for illegals living here for longer than four years, and tighter controls on hiring those without greencards.

Be careful what you wish for.  What the 1986 law really did in the end was make a bigger mess.

Border Control – One of the stated purposes of the 1986 immigration act was to effectively seal off the southern border in order to control the flow of illegals into the country.  What actually happened is that Congress never appropriated enough funds to do the job properly and people crossing illegally started doing so in other parts of the southwest.  The ultimate result was a doubling in the number of illegals squatting throughout the country.

Path to Citizenship – According to retrospective articles published in the last two years from The Washington Post and The Daily Beast, at the time, there were an estimated 5 million illegals in the country in 1986.  Roughly 2.7 million actually took advantage of paying the fine, getting legal greencards and becoming citizens, leaving about half still unaccounted for officially (and not paying taxes, which was an unstated goal of the bill) in addition to the millions more who jumped the fence.

Cut Down On Non Greencard Workers – (this is where it gets really dicey)  In the original bill, Simpson and Mazzoli did have provisions for sanctions against companies that hired illegals.  Companies could not knowingly hire illegals to do work or face fines and penalties.  It was watered down from the original intent, but it was there.  This midwifed a burgeoning fake ID industry that still persists as the idea of a national ID card is outright unpalatable to the American people and thus that aspect of the 1986 bill was removed.  To make matters worse, hiring agents did not always look too closely at the authenticity of paperwork presented.  In addition, as per U.S. law in the Bill of Rights, immigration officials could not tread on private property to investigate allegations of illegal immigrants being hired without a search warrant, and many times large businesses contracted the work out, thus giving “plausible deniability” coverage to the owners.

By these measures, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that was supposed to fix the illegal alien problem once and for all was a dismal failure.

Fast forward to 2014 and the possible immigration law chaos that drives conservatives nuts.  By all accounts, what is being proposed in a “comprehensive” way (translation: do it all at once and slip the risks in with the sure thing in a bill so large that no one will read it before they vote on it) is variations on the same themes that failed with the 1986 law.  There is a provision for border security, but not the massive, concrete fence with plenty of rebar and razor wire that we really need if we are serious about sealing off the southern border (Reagan, by the way, did not endorse that.  He wanted the border open with agreements with our neighbors to the south).  There are fines proposed for people who are not violent criminals in exchange for the magic greencard, but no mention of how Congress intends to deal with document forgers kept in business by those who have no intention of paying U.S. taxes while working here.  We now have I-9s and E-Verify for the honest employers, but that doesn’t do much good when one is paying workers in cash, under the table or in any other way that is untraceable.

This is why dealing with immigration is such a sticky wicket.  There is no waterproof way to deal with the tar baby without having to violate some portion of American law that none of us are willing to compromise.  Wrestling with it just causes more problems somewhere else in the system.  When it comes down to it, the illegal immigration issue is one that will be with us so long as there is a market for cheap labor.  That is not going to change no matter how many laws are on the books.

About the Author

Cultural Limits
A resident of Flyover Country, Cultural Limits is a rare creature in American Conservatism - committed to not just small government, Christianity and traditional social roles, but non-profits and high arts and culture. Watching politics, observing human behavior and writing are all long-time interests. In her other life, CL writes romance novels under her nom de plume, Patricia Holden (@PatriciaHoldenAuthor on Facebook), and crochets like a mad woman (designs can be found on Facebook @BohemianFlairCrochet and on Pinterest on the Bohemian Flair Crochet board). In religion, CL is Catholic; in work, the jill of all trades when it comes to fundraising software manipulation and event planning; in play, a classically trained soprano and proud citizen of Cardinal Nation, although, during hockey season, Bleeds Blue. She lives in the Mid-Mississippi River Valley with family and two cute and charming tyrants...make that toy dogs.

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