- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2017

The children of Ronald Reagan are rising up against President Trump.

More than 30 years after then-President Reagan signed an amnesty for 2.7 million illegal immigrants, some of those who were legalized are leaders in the movement to resist Mr. Trump.

“Why I am now fighting? Because I know the pain,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, who slipped into the U.S. illegally as a teenager in 1977 and won status under the 1986 amnesty. “We have been fighting for many years to get elected officials to understand the immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed, and now more than ever the fight has become not even about immigration, but fighting what I believe is a racist attack on our community.”

The 1986 amnesty was the key defining moment of immigration policy for the past half-century. The crux of the deal was a promise: Most of those in the country illegally would be put onto a speedy path to citizenship, in exchange for a guarantee that the government would get serious about immigration enforcement, ensuring there would never again be a need for an amnesty.

The immigrants were legalized, but the enforcement lagged. Over the next two decades, the unauthorized population grew to more than 12 million.

Despite the promise of the 1986 deal, Congress has spent the past 15 years contemplating yet another amnesty and insisting they will get it right this time.

The beneficiaries of the amnesty and their children are now on the front lines to push for leniency and to battle Mr. Trump’s crackdown.

“We can do better than to say we can kick them all out and separate families,” said Jose Moreno, a member of the Anaheim City Council who derived citizenship from the Reagan amnesty. “It is not just resistance to Trump. We see this every 20 or 30 years where people are scapegoated — especially with immigration.”

Mr. Moreno said he is trying to govern with the same compassion that the president and Congress showed him over three decades ago.

“I want to live out the ethic that allowed me to become a formal citizen of the country, and that is we fight for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and in politics push for a government that seeks to help people and not control people and seeks to engage people and not dismiss people,” he said.

The 2.7 million people who won amnesty have had children and sponsored other family members for immigration, expanding the population to an estimated 9 million Americans, said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

They have become a powerful political force — and an obstacle to cracking down on illegal immigrants, Mr. Camarota said.

“It makes it very hard in the future to ever enforce the law because the previous group will be grateful for their amnesty,” Mr. Camarota said. “It is kind of hypocritical if you received a break to say that no one else should.”

Little research has been conducted on those legalized under the Reagan amnesty, so it’s not clear how well they have done economically and socially.

A 2010 Homeland Security Department study found that only about 40 percent of those granted the amnesty had gone on to get citizenship, suggesting that full assimilation wasn’t a high priority for former illegal immigrants overall. Analysts said nearly 75 percent of those legalized were Mexicans, who tend to be less inclined to try for U.S. citizenship.

Another 5.7 percent were from El Salvador, 4.6 percent were Cuban and 2.4 percent were Guatemalan, according to a 2000 book by Nicholas Laham examining the amnesty.

Mr. Monterroso was one of those Guatemalans. He said he fled a civil war in his home country at the age of 18 and paid a smuggler $700 to help him slip into U.S. along the border in Southern California.

He said it is hard to convey the experience of being an illegal immigrant — feeling exploited as a worker, missing loved ones and living in fear of deportation — and the relief of receiving amnesty. But he said immigrants are closely watching the debate and remembering who is on their side.

“Our Latino community is becoming more united,” he said. “We are going to continue building. We will continue organizing, and we will remember on Election Day those who stood with us, those who attacked us and those would stood by and did nothing when we were attacked.”

Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who led the fight against President George W. Bush’s push for an amnesty in the last decade, said he is not shocked that those who benefited from the Reagan policy are now fighting for another amnesty.

He said it should be a warning to Republicans about the political consequences.

“The lesson is if you are stupid enough as a Republican to acquiesce to the siren call of amnesty because you think somehow someway eventually all these people will vote Republican, you are crazy,” he said. “If these folks had a tendency to become solid Republican — free-enterprise, small-government Republicans — believe me, the Democrats would have built a wall 50 feet high with gun turrets on top and broken glass.”

Some of the children of the amnesty have gone on to be elected to public office.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez, one of the amnesty children, led the unsuccessful fight in Texas last month to protect sanctuary cities.

“A former undocumented immigrant, an illegal alien, is your colleague standing before you today,” she said.

She received legal residency under Reagan after living for eight years as an illegal immigrant. “I know there are many other immigrants out there like me waiting to be given the opportunity that I was given,” she said.

Ms. Hernandez said the odds were against her as an illegal immigrant but God was on her side.

“I believe he has a plan and purpose in my life. I plan to use the gifts he has given me to continue serving others, standing up for what is just and being that voice for those that can’t speak for themselves,” she said.

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