My friend and colleague Ed Meese is second to no one in his admiration for Ronald Reagan. However, the man who served as the nation's 75th attorney general will readily admit it was a serious mistake for Reagan to accept the compromise at the heart of the 1986 immigration "reform" bill and sign it into law.
Why? Because that piece of legislation turned out to be a big amnesty bill. No, it wasn't advertised that way. It was sold as "border security in exchange for amnesty." Except that the promised border security never materialized. "Amnesty first, border security second" may have sounded good in theory, but it worked out to be nothing but amnesty.
It also was presented as a "one-time only" deal. Yet here we are again.
The least that today's lawmakers could do is learn from this experience. Unfortunately, not enough of them have. Politicians from both sides of the aisle insist that the latest immigration reform isn't amnesty. Oh, no. It would merely give legal residency to the 11 million people who are here illegally. Excuse me, but how is that not amnesty?
Whatever they insist on calling it, it's the wrong policy. And it has a very predictable effect.
"Since the '86 amnesty, the number of illegal immigrants has quadrupled," Mr. Meese recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "That should teach Congress a very important lesson: Amnesty 'bends' the rule of law. And bending the rule of law to reach a 'comprehensive' deal winds up provoking wholesale breaking of the law. Ultimately, it encourages millions more to risk entering the country illegally in the hope that one day they, too, might receive amnesty."
This also has the effect of undermining the rule of law, one of the very features that makes the United States so attractive to so many immigrants in the first place. What does granting amnesty tell the more than 4.4 million people now waiting to immigrate to the United States lawfully? Some of them have been in the queue for two decades. Who could blame them for feeling like fools for playing by the rules if fence-jumpers are given a clean slate?
If lawmakers who support the current immigration bill really want to convince us that it isn't amnesty, maybe they can explain why the border-security elements are back-loaded. "Many of the supposed requirements, such as border fencing and thousands of new Border Patrol agents, wouldn't be implemented for years, if at all," James Carafano and Derrick Morgan of the Heritage Foundation wrote in a recent op-ed. "As with current immigration laws, some provisions could be ignored or waived by the Department of Homeland Security."
Another flaw: The bill puts too much emphasis on federal border enforcement. State and local governments, though, are willing and able to shoulder part of the burden. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has fewer than 6,000 agents to protect our border. Yes, the current bill adds agents, but not until well into the future. But what about now?
Take Operation Jump Start. President George W. Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to help Border Patrol agents in 2006 via that program. These troops served under the operational control of the governors. That's just one example of what we can do.
A big part of the problem is that lawmakers are trying to overhaul the nation's immigration laws via a "comprehensive" bill. By trying to do everything at once, they ensure that they do almost nothing well. What's required is a piecemeal approach, one that focuses on getting each element right. Want to convince the American people that they'll get the border security they've been promised? Tackle that separately — and do it first.
We need a system that welcomes immigrants, protects our sovereignty, encourages assimilation and expands opportunities for everyone. A friend of mine recently summed it up well: What we need is a big wall with a big door. A "comprehensive" approach won't get us there.
Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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