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.
But Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who supported the 1986 bill but is leading the opposition this time, said he fears Congress is about to make the same mistakes again.
"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.
Other lessons Mr. Chishti said lawmakers have learned include requiring employers to use an electronic system to verify workers' status, which should provide stronger enforcement checks, and reducing the cutoff date to less than two years for illegal immigrants to earn legal status.
Mr. Chishti said he would like to see less time because those who arrived after the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline again will germinate another illegal immigrant population.
The 1986 bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli, Kentucky Democrat, and Sen. Alan K. Simpson, Wyoming Republican.
Mr. Simpson said the 1986 effort had a major setback when lawmakers on the right and left attacked their efforts to include a "secure identifier" to help employers verify workers' status. One opponent, Rep. Edward R. Roybal, California Democrat, said it amounted to a national ID card and, according to Mr. Simpson, warned of a slippery slope to Nazi Germany-style tattoos.
The "Gang of Eight" that wrote this year's bill is also wary of the charges of a national ID card, but Mr. Simpson said he believes they will have to include some sort of biometric identifier in the bill to make it work smoothly.
"What I hear them talking about are retina scans and fingerprints, and I ain't seen one single article from either the right or left about slippery slope," the retired senator said. "When the guy walks up to get a job and the employer says, 'How do I know you're you' — at that point that has to be valid."
Nine senators who were in the chamber in 1986 are still in office. Of those, six voted for the bill while two voted against it: Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah. Another, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, did not vote but, according to Congressional Quarterly Almanac, he was in favor of it.
Another 10 current senators were in the House in 1986 and voted on the bill, and they split with six opposing it and four voting in favor.
Since then, much has changed, including the minds of some key lawmakers. While Mr. Grassley is now an ardent supporter, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has gone from opponent to chief champion.
Perhaps most striking of all is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who voted against the law as a representative in 1986. A quarter-century later, Mr. Reid now says immigration is a deeply personal issue for him, and that's why he has cleared the pathway for the bill, carving out the rest of the month of June for what he promised will be a freewheeling debate.
"I've devoted more time to immigration reform than any other issue over my career in Congress," he said. "Each time I meet with constituents desperate for common-sense reform, my passion for fixing our broken immigration system is renewed."
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