Reagan’s Gift to Congressional Democrats

As the Trump administration sits embroiled in the middle of a legal battle to decide the fate of their executive order barring refugee immigration from seven middle eastern countries, it seems that the immigration policy debate in the United States has ground to a halt. On both sides of the aisle, the ideas being publicly debated have become more and more extremist in response to increased stalling of any kind of bipartisan effort to tackle this issue. The right has seemed to fully embrace the Trump approach of effectively closing borders. Meanwhile, the left has began to pretend that immigration laws effectively don’t exist and shouldn’t be enforced. 

This absence of a rational approach to immigration reform has lead many to decide they will refer to the White House on this issue, allowing them to implement any policy they want based on the large purview of immigration law which Congress has gifted the Executive Branch. It was this large purview that allowed the Obama administration to sign the executive order deferring deportations for parents of US citizens and undocumented citizens who were brought to the US as children. It is the same power that has given the Trump White House the ability to block refugee migration. 

They key fact that many seem to have recently forgotten is the that the Executive Branch’s power to shape immigration laws only extends for as long as they are in power. To accomplish any real change, new laws must be passed. Only congress has the power to permanently shape this debate. However, the issue has become dormant after several Democratic congressional failures to pass reform through an increasingly oppositional Republican majority after 2010. The last of these culminated in an executive action from President Obama. Considering the Republican’s abdication of their constitutional roll in deferment to President Trump, it falls to the Democrats to, once again, make a pitch. This is where the challenge lies. 

With the Republicans in the majority in all branches of government and with the increased polarization in Washington, Democrats are at a major loss. However, a solution to this could come from a reexamination of a failed law. In 1986, the Congress, with heavy support from the Reagan administration, passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), a remarkably liberal bill when compared to our current political climate. The law failed in it’s initial goals of stopping illegal immigration to the United States, but with some tweeting, and proper enforcement, this law could become the bipartisan solution that is needed. 

Immigration Priorities 

In order to reach a bipartisan consensus for passing through a new immigration law, it’s imperative that we first examine the needs of both sides of the aisle. In 2010, then Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), now the current Democratic minority leader, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) published a joint op-ed in the Washington Post laying out the priorities for a bi-partisan immigration package, this proposal had four chief measures: 

  • Preventing illegal immigrants from being able to work in the United States—a fair enough measure for protecting the jobs of American labor, a priority that has been at the top of President Trump’s list since he began his campaign. The Senators themselves called for the use of biometric social security cards to police employment. However, privacy watchdogs may take issue with this specific measure. 
  • Committing to increase border security and immigration law enforcement within the country, an often cited, but rarely backed up, proposal from the right which could have a positive effect if plans are carefully laid out and properly enforced. 
  • Creating a process for admitting temporary workers into the United States, a system which many in the agriculture industry would rely on considering that nearly 42% of farm workers in the country are migrants according to a 2009 report by the National Center for Farmworker Health.  
  • The final proposal—and easily the most controversial in recent years—is building a “tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.” The word “amnesty” has now become a political attack on the hill, filling millions of Americans with anxiety, but it’s proposal is not new. The plan lays out a vision for the undocumented to come out of the shadows and make themselves right with with the law by admitting wrong-doing, paying a fine, and finally putting themselves on a path to legal residence. 

These proposals present a unified vision of what an immigration reform could look like. At the time they were proposed by Senators Schumer and Graham, these proposals had growing support from Democratic law makers. President Obama weighed in on the plans in a speech during a meeting of North American leaders: “But ultimately, I think the American people want fairness. And we can create a system in which you have strong border security and an orderly process for people to come in. But we’re also giving an opportunity for those who are already in the United States to be able to achieve a pathway to citizenship so they don’t have to live in the shadows.”

The Republican leadership, however, was much less keen on championing a vision supported by a President they loathed. One of the key criticisms to these proposals was mainly against the timing. "I just don't think this is the right time to take up this issue, with the border security problems, the drug wars going on across the border, 10% unemployment. It just strikes me that our time would be better spent at the federal level on other issues,” then Senate Minority leader—now Majority leader—Mitch McConnell told Fox News.  

A second objection came from the proposal of any amnesty measures for undocumented immigrants already in the country. According to Think Progress in 2010, at least fourteen GOP Senate hopefuls publicly noted that they would not support any efforts to offer pathways to citizenship to undocumented immigrants. This resistance to amnesty continued well into the 2016 election. Most notably, this battle was put on display during the presidential election as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz fought to see who supported amnesty the least

When it comes to immigration policy, the highest Republican priority is border security. This is exemplified in almost any immigration speech given by Republicans—some of the most extreme positions coming from Donald Trump himself, who during the campaign called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Trump also repeatedly calls for a large wall to be built between the United States and Mexico. Both of those plans are now coming to fruition with major Republican support. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has even promised to allocate the estimated $14 billion dollars it will cost for Trump’s wall as soon as Trump’s team can roll out the plan.

Democratic priorities remain mainly what they were when the reforms were originally proposed; but in recent years, the idea of offering protections to people in the country illegally has become a major sticking point in the Democratic platform. Acts such as President Obama’s “Dreamer” order, and the many citizenship path plans offered by Congressional democrats are evidence of this—as well as the policies of several Democratically lead cities which have ordered their police departments not to question the citizenship status people with whom they come in contact. The reasons for this intense focus on immigrant protection comes from several different areas of Democratic ideology. Some of them are purely humanitarian, some are economic, some question the practicality of mass immigration enforcement, and some are combinations of all three. 

Mr. Reagan’s Law

When President Reagan was planning to reform the immigration laws in the 1980’s, it’s not as if he was facing an entirely backwards political climate from where it is now. There were conservatives worried about national security—especially with the waining, but still worrisome Soviet Union looming over the horizon. There were also liberals worried about the United States’ humanitarian role in the world. Reagan had to balance these challenges and come up with a plan that would suit all sides of the debate. The one big difference however was how Reagan himself personified the issue of immigration. Reagan displayed a level of compassion towards the plight of undocumented immigrants which is rarely seen today on the right. Reagan spoke with admiration for people trying to reach a better life, and he extolled the hardships of living in Mexico compared to the seeming bounty that existed in the United States. In a 1980 campaign debate against then primary rival George Bush Sr., Reagan said of undocumented immigrants, and Mexico: “Instead of putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some mutual recognition of our problems. Make it possible for them [undocumented immigrants] to come here legally with a work permit, and then while they’re working here, they pay taxes here, and if they want to go back they can go back, and open the border both ways.”  

This sentiment from 1980 could just as easily have come out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth while she debated Donald Trump, but it is all but unheard of from modern conservatives.

Later in his presidency, Reagan would once again directly rebuke modern conservative ideology by embracing their most hated immigration reform. “I believe in the idea of amnesty” Reagan said in a 1984 Presidential debate. “for those who have put down roots, and who have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” These comments were made after Reagan’s first attempt at passing the IRCA had failed. He announced that he was prepared to reintroduce it in the next congress, and was hopeful it would pass, which it did. 

The Immigration Reform and Control Act passed Congress (which you can read for yourself here) was signed into law by President Reagan in 1986. While the president had reservations about the final version of the law, he still looked on it with pride—calling it “the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws since 1952,” and extolling the virtues of “efforts to humanely regain control of our borders.” The most comprehensive immigration reform since 1952 would contain three main principles that were meant to guide American immigration policy into the future: 

The first provision was to extend the offer of legal American citizenship to anyone who had illegally entered the country before 1982. All of those who wished to take advantage of the program were required to present themselves to the government, pay a small fine, and be of “good moral character”. Once all of this had been done—provided they spoke english—they would have to wait eighteen months, and would then be allowed to apply for a green card. This provision ushered in the largest legalization program in United States history with nearly three million people applying and 2.7 million being awarded legal residence. This was a huge percentage considering there were only around five million undocumented immigrants living in the United States at that time. 

The second provision was to increase border security. The plan for this was mainly to increase the staff of border patrol agents and tighten up surveillance. While President Reagan was focused on accommodating the people who were living in the United States already, he was equally concerned about stopping anyone else who wanted to come in illegally. As he said when he announced the law, his plan was to “regain control of the border.”

The final provision of the law was the one most crucial to it’s success. This provision placed a blanket sanction on any employees who hired, or maintained an illegal work force. The administration saw this provision as the key to the entire law, both practically and morally. If the White House could not stop employers from hiring illegal workers for lower wages than their legal competition, then the stream of illegal immigrants would not stop. The Reagan administration believed you had to cut off the reason why people were coming to the United States—those jobs were the reason. However, the administration was truly committed to taking care of people living in the Untied States. President Reagan "knew that it was not right for people to be abused," Alan K. Simpson, a chief patron on the bill, said of the laws passage. Additionally, Reagan himself spoke out against the abuses against the immigrant population by employers. Speaking in the 1984 presidential debate after the first attempt at the bill had failed, Reagan said of the employer sanctions:

While some keep protesting about what [the IRCA] would do to employers, there is another employer that we shouldn’t be so concerned about. And these are employers who…have encouraged the illegal entry in to this country because they then hire these individuals, and hire them at starvation wages and with none of the benefits that we think are normal and natural for workers in our country and the individuals cant complain because of their illegal status. We don’t think those people should be allowed to keep operating free.

Despite the Reagan administration’s best efforts, the law failed in it’s primary and most ambitious goal. Illegal immigration to the Untied States did not end, and there continued to be suffering among the migrant community. There were several factors which accounted for this. The most often cited reason is the lack of enforcement of the sanctions against employers. One of the reasons the Reagan administration was not completely thrilled with the bill in it’s final passage was that congress gutted the bill of almost all the employer sanction provisions in an attempt to reach out to the pro-business legislation. Without the power to stop employers from hiring illegal work, the administration said that a stop to illegal immigration was unobtainable. 

Lessons Learned

Mr. Reagan’s “truly successful bipartisan effort” was not as successful as the administration had hoped. But while it was not successful in stoping the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, it was successful in two very important areas. First, it obviously allowed 2.7 million people to come out of the shadows and gain legal residence in the United States. Secondly, the “bipartisan effort” which Reagan spoke about when signing the bill was true. The bill’s patrons brought together Republicans and Democrats on all different parts of the ideological spectrum and put together an immigration package which passed. 

Now thirty years later with the country embroiled in the middle of an even more contentious immigration debate, congress must attempt to readapt IRCA and rewrite it for the twenty-first century climate. We have learned many things about the immigration in this country since 1986, and all of these lessons can be incorporated in to a reformatted law. The most important point however, is that the fundamentals of the legislation are sound. 

Reintroducing IRCA presents a rare bipartisan gift to the US Congress. The original provisions of the law serve as a balance of both Republican, and Democratic priorities. When we look back to the list of priorities that Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham wrote in 2010, we see that IRCA checks all of the boxes requested by both sides of the aisle. 

Extend an offer of legal citizenship to those living in the country, and make it “tough but fair”? IRCA hands Congress the framework to accomplish this with the added benefit that it acts as a precedent for how such a roll out would be accomplished. Any conservative concerned that amnesty would not work because it would be a bureaucratic nightmare need only look to how the Reagan administration handled the rollout for their blueprint. All that would need to happen would be to scale the numbers up to handle the increased applicant list. Another recommendation would be to implement this amnesty in stages in order to deal with the larger numbers. For example, every year Immigrations and Customs could commit to taking 2 millions applicants. In around five or six years, the pool of 11 million would be rapidly reduced. 

Increased border security? Right there in the law. The increasing of border security would be one of the easiest provision to get passed the modern Congress, but it would take a clear commitment from the Executive branch to enforce it. The Trump administration would most likely commit to this enforcement, but there is still a worry that Trump would not want to work with Congress on this bill—mainly because Trump ran on a much more strict message of immigration reform than anything Reagan could have imagined doing. However, any future Democratic administration—barring those on the far left—would most likely have no problem enforcing this provision. Additionally, it would be imperative that Congress properly fund these initiates. Which, if Paul Ryan is willing to pay $14 billion dollars for a concrete wall, we should hope he would also work with the Congress on immigration reform that would be more useful. 

Prevent illegal immigrants from being able to work in the United States? What the drafters of IRCA knew was that to stop the ability for illegal workers to work in the US, you have to stop the source. If you cut off the jobs and heavily sanction anyone who hires illegal workers, the ability for any illegal worker to find a job should be greatly diminished. But once again, it would take tough enforcement. Congress must not water down the employer sanction provisions. They should send a message to the American people that “your jobs matter first”—a populist message that Donald Trump would be sure to jump at. Then they must make sure that employers know that if they break this law, they will be subjected to punishment. For the same reason that Reagan knew it was wrong for people to be abused, this section should appeal to any Democrats worried about the conditions under which illegal immigrants work. “Bring them out of the shadows, give them honest work! Protect them from abuse!” any democrat could shout at an opponent of this bill. 

The only hurdle left to tackle is the increased Republican opposition to amnesty. If anything could kill the reintroduction of IRCA it would be a speech by Ted Cruz decrying, “the evils of government handouts to illegal alines.” The Democrats who will be pitching this bill need to have a response ready. Particularly, they should adopt and reframe the amnesty message. Democrats have normally pitched amnesty as a humanitarian effort. “We must bring these people in to the country for the good of their lives!” shouts the unnamed Democratic senator from the floor of that august body. However, this has proven clearly ineffective, and with the Trump lead “America First!” messaging campaign, it will continue to be ineffective. 

The best thing that Democrats could do is reframe the immigration debate away from humanitarian ideology, and refocus it on the concrete details of what it could accomplish. Amnesty is now an economic message; it is a worker’s rights plan, and it is a criminal justice reform all in one—all of which would appeal to conservatives’ constant complaints against government handouts, over-employment of illegal immigrants, and sanctuary cities. Democrats must begin to point out that if undocumented immigrants are brought out of the shadows they will be legitimized in to the American system. They will begin to properly pay taxes. They will be able to gain higher paying jobs, which will boost the economy. Democrats must make the argument that if these people are brought out of the shadows, and employers are forced to stop employing illegal labor, the over-employment of migrant workers in the American work force would end—opening up those jobs to Americans. Democrats should point out that the ultimate solution to democrat-controlled cities shielding illegal residents is to allow those immigrants to make themselves right with the law. Have these people turn themselves over the police and pay a fine. Have them learn english if necessary. Democrats must do everything in their power to promote the concrete and tangible effects that amnesty would have, and how it would help the country in the long run. 

It also shouldn’t be ignored that Democrats in this scenario would be championing a law favored by Ronald Reagan. Conservatives of course aren’t stupid, and they wouldn’t support a bill only because a president they admire initially proposed it if it goes against their values and interests. But by championing a Reagan proposal with a proven track record—provided there is increased enforcement, would hopefully lend credence to any democrats who are trying to broach into bipartisan territory in our increasingly partisan time.  

It would then be up to democrats to convince conservatives that this law would be a good thing for the country, the American people, and the economy. It would also help those who call the United States home. Both sides of the aisle want immigration reform. Both sides of the aisle want to help people in their own way. The entire country is begging for Washington to return to a sense of normalcy, and work on solutions to problems. Thirty years ago, President Reagan gifted our modern Congress a frame work with which they can once again reform immigration law. It will be up to Democrats and Republicans to enact this change, but it will be up to Democratic messengers to convince the nation that this is the right thing to do.

We earnestly hope that before this Congress adjourns, the House and Senate will compromise, wring out the raw partisanship, and find a way to send President Bush - who has staked so much on enactment of solid immigration reform - a measure structured along the lines of our original bill. There is still time

Former Senators Romano L. Mazzoli and Alan K. Simpson, the original chief patrons of IRCA, made this statement in a Washington Post op-ed in 2006. Our country has grown ever increasingly partisan since the George W. Bush years, but this sentiment rings as true today—now ten years later—as it did then. There is still time. The Congress must only seize on the framework that sits right in front of them. 


Zachary Sizemore is the Managing Editor at Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.