WASHINGTON -- It was a little past 10 o'clock on a November morning when President Ronald Reagan walked into the White House's Roosevelt Room and prepared to sign into law the most comprehensive immigration reforms the country had seen in 3 1/2 decades.
In a short speech before he put ink to paper, Reagan paused to reflect on what the new law would mean.
"Future generations of Americans will be thankful," he said, "for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship."
Today, that 1986 law is widely regarded as a missed opportunity and, at worst, a well-intentioned failure. For many, it stands as a blueprint of mistakes to be avoided as another president and yet another Congress prepare to take on the still-vexing issue of illegal immigration.
"The same problem is here that we faced then," said former Rep. Bob Lagomarsino, who represented Ventura County in Congress when the law was passed.
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was intended as a balanced approach to reform by giving millions of people already in the country illegally a shot at permanent residency and by stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States through border enforcement and employer sanctions.
But while the legalization effort yielded results -- about 2.7 million immigrants were granted permanent residency under the law -- the promise of tougher border enforcement went unrealized because of a lack of funding and staffing. The threat of a crackdown against employers who knowingly hired illegal workers never materialized because political compromises weakened the employer sanctions and because widespread fraud enabled companies to keep hiring illegal immigrants.
"What we learned is amnesty is forever and the promises of enforcement, they probably don't last longer than the president's signature takes to dry on the paper," said Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates measures to stop illegal immigration.
Questions of citizenship and border security remain sticking points as groups of senators and House members work to come up with a new package of comprehensive reforms.
Democrats want the new legislation to include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, while conservative Republicans argue that would amount to granting amnesty to lawbreakers. Even Republicans who support legalization say the nation's borders must be secured before illegal immigrants are placed on a path to citizenship.
What's more, the immigration challenges facing the country today are far different from what they were when Reagan signed the 1986 bill into law. The number of undocumented immigrants has exploded, from 5 million in 1986 to an estimated 11 million today. Some estimates put the number as high as 20 million. The illegal immigration population also has spread out and is no longer concentrated in a handful of states, as it was back in 1986.
"At that time, immigration really was still just an issue for five or six states," said Doris Meissner, of the Migration Policy Institute and commissioner of the federal immigration agency under President Bill Clinton. "It was not a national issue the way it is now."
Lagomarsino, a Republican, voted for the 1986 law -- but reluctantly, he said.
"I didn't like the idea of the amnesty," he said. "I just didn't think there should be amnesty for people who had entered the country illegally. But I was persuaded that on balance, it made sense."
To gain permanent residency under the 1986 law, illegal immigrants first had to file for temporary residency, pay a $185 filing fee and show they had no criminal record. After 18 months, they could seek a green card, or permanent residency, by proving competency in English and knowledge of American civics. A special program also was put in place to provide permanent residency for agricultural workers who could demonstrate seasonal work experience with certain crops.
Employers were required to verify the work eligibility of their employees or face sanctions. But political compromises made to appease the business community, civil-rights activists and others left that provision without any teeth.
As a result, employers simply had to sign a form showing they had asked for and examined specific documents to determine work eligibility and that those documents appeared to be reasonably genuine. Workers found out they could skirt the law's requirements by obtaining bogus documents.
"You had a wink and nod system" that is still in place today, Meissner said.
As the debate heats up again, it is often noted with irony that today the most fervent opposition to immigration reform comes from conservatives, yet it was their hero -- Reagan -- who signed the 1986 reforms into law. But Reagan was a Californian who saw the kind of hard work and entrepreneurism that immigrants brought to the United States and believed immigration was an important part of the country's heritage, Meissner said.
"He did understand something about this issue from his own personal and political origins," she said.
But some Republicans seriously doubt he would have signed the law if he had seen the explosion of illegal immigration that was to come and had been dealt the immigration hand that lawmakers are holding today.
(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)
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