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Lessons of 1986 amnesty loom in immigration debate
As Congress takes up immigration reform, the last major amnesty in 1986 hangs heavily over the debate — a lesson for both sides in the perils of failing on border and employment security, even as they move for another round of legalization.
The eight senators who wrote this year’s bill say they have corrected the mistakes of that law, which President Reagan signed and which granted citizenship rights to 3 million people, including many who may have obtained citizenship by fraud.
“I was there. I lived it, I voted for it, and I acknowledge that what we did in 1986, we got it wrong,” he said Monday, ahead of a first test vote on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. “We can’t afford to make the same mistakes of yesterday. From our national security to our economic security, too much is at stake, so don’t repeat 1986.”
Like this round, the 1986 law was enacted after years of debate and amid growing pressure to do something about millions of illegal immigrants in the country.
That bill granted legal status to illegal immigrants who were in the U.S. for at least five years, and for the first time imposed penalties on businesses that hired illegal workers.
But 27 years later, all sides agree that the country didn’t make an effort to control the borders or to pursue unscrupulous employers, which has led to more illegal immigrants, now estimated to be about 11 million. Lawmakers once again are promising to fix enforcement in exchange for legalization.
To add to the problems, an inspector general concluded that the 1986 law invited massive fraud as illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. after the five-year limit, or who didn’t otherwise qualify, managed to forge documents to prove that they should be eligible.
The eight senators who wrote this year’s bill, known by its Senate legislative designation S. 744, say they learned the lessons.
In its official report, the Judiciary Committee, which cleared the bill on a bipartisan 13-5 vote, said the 1986 law led to discrimination by employers, which undermined the workplace enforcement.
The committee also said that imposing the five-year cutoff for legalization and excluding spouses and children from the legalization the law left a large number of immigrants in the country illegally. That group became the germ of the 11 million now in the U.S.
“The legalization framework created in S. 744 is tough, rigorous, and informed by the lessons learned from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986,” the senators assured their colleagues.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law, agreed with many of the committee report’s concerns about the 1986 law, and added another major hole: The previous immigration reform did not provide new avenues for immigrants to fill jobs in the U.S.
“To me, the big issue was the lack of legal channels created in the law,” he said. “It’s a very interesting time of comparison. In 1986, while Congress was debating, we were sort of in a mild recession, so we were not expanding a demand for workers. By the time the law was signed by President Reagan, we were just coming out of recession.”
Mr. Chishti said that meant there was suddenly a demand for workers but no channel to get them here.
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