By Michael Collins
It was a little past 10 o'clock on a November morning when 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 3½ 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.
"It didn't work," said U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville. "Now, in some ways, they are talking about doing once again some of the things they did in that law."
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 some 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 had weakened the employer sanctions and because widespread fraud enabled companies to keep on 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 Senate 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 migrants, while conservative Republicans argue that would amount to granting amnesty to law-breakers. 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 than 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.
"We have to have some sort of legal, orderly system of immigration, and it has to be enforced," Duncan said. But, "I'm not going to vote for a bill that looks to me like it's very similar to the (1986) bill."
To gain permanent residency under the 1986 law, illegal immigrants had to first file for temporary residency, pay a $185 filing 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 agriculture workers who could demonstrate seasonal work experience in 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 that they could skirt the law's requirements by obtaining bogus documents.
One of the 1986 law's big failures was it didn't adequately address "push and pull factors" that cause immigrants to flee their own countries and head for the United States, said Karla McKanders, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee's College of Law.
"We have to consider what's drawing immigrants to the United States," said McKanders, who specializes in civil rights and immigration law. "Then we also have to consider what's going on on the other side of the border that is pushing people to leave their country of origin."
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 Duncan, for one, thinks Reagan might have acted differently if he had been dealt the immigration hand that current lawmakers are holding.
"I don't know that Ronald Reagan would do the same thing if he was facing a problem that had become four or five times worse than it was in 1986," Duncan said.