Rep. Joe Barton’s son attends a public school in small-town Texas where more than half of his classmates are Hispanic, and he figures a good number of them are from homes where at least one parent is an illegal immigrant.
The congressman says it’s one of several things that influences his thinking on the thorny issue of immigration.
Mr. Barton is one of a small number of lawmakers who were in Congress in 1986, the last time a major amnesty was approved. He voted against it then. But now he is looking for reasons to back legalization for illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” saying he is older, the issue has changed and the people in question this time are more sympathetic.
“The dynamic is different,” Mr. Barton recently told The Washington Times. “In ‘86, it was adults, primarily single adults, migrant farmworkers. It was more of a labor issue.
“Today it is a lot different because you have the children,” he said, later adding, “The children shouldn’t be held liable for their parents’ sins.”
On the other side of the issue are lawmakers like Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who voted for the 1986 amnesty and said the lesson he learned amounts to once bitten, twice shy.
Now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Grassley has taken the lead in opposing blanket legalization plans, including for Dreamers, saying he saw what happened last time when Congress thought it could combine an amnesty with promises of border security.
The amnesty put some 2.7 million people on a pathway to citizenship, but the promises of enforcement, including tighter border controls and a crackdown on businesses that hire illegal immigrants, lagged behind.
The illegal immigrant population soared from an estimated 3 million to 4 million in 1986 to more than 12 million some 20 years later. The number has ticked down and now hovers around 11 million, demographers calculate.
As his Senate colleagues debated citizenship for Dreamers this year, Mr. Grassley chided them for failing to heed history.
“Too bad there is only a handful of us around the U.S. Senate from that time because there would be a lot more missionaries saying that what happened in 1986 shouldn’t be repeated,” he said.
Some House Republicans are beginning to take note.
When they met last week behind closed doors to talk about how to write an immigration bill that would help Dreamers but also tighten security, the 1986 experience was at the forefront.
“The fundamental view is if you don’t get border security you are going to be dealing with DACA for another five, 10, 15 years,” said Rep. Jason Lewis of Minnesota, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program designed to help Dreamers. “To just do DACA would be a fool’s errand.”
Other lawmakers emerged from the closed-door meeting saying 1986 was on their minds.
Even as he signed the 1986 amnesty, President Reagan said he feared it may not work.
Over the ensuing years, 2.7 million people, including some who cheated the system, received legal status. Government watchdogs later said the program was rife with fraud.
Why the enforcement didn’t work is still heatedly debated. Some analysts blame a lack of willpower, saying businesses stepped in to make sure authorities didn’t go too hard on employers that used illegal immigrant labor.
Others say the seeds of failure were sown into the plan. The amnesty legalized only people who had been in the country before 1982, leaving illegal immigrants who arrived from 1982 to 1986 on the wrong side of the law. Without real enforcement to deport them, they became seeds of the current 11 million illegal immigrants.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, told his colleagues on the House floor last week that the nation has been paying for Mr. Reagan’s mistake.
“It created the expectation that there would be other amnesties,” he said.
Mr. Grassley is one of a number of senators who were in Congress in 1986, but Sen. John McCain was in the House at the time and voted against that amnesty. He has since become the Republicans’ biggest champion for legalization.
Also in the House at the time were current Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. Both Democrats voted for the amnesty and are leaders in the push for a broad legalization now.
They failed in their attempt to get the Senate to approve a bill for Dreamers this year, foiled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican was also around for the 1986 bill and voted for it.
Mr. Barton said the political environment has changed since 1986 because of access to information through the internet and social media, and special interest groups are more sophisticated in ratcheting up pressure on lawmakers.
“It is a different world,” he said. “Back in ‘86, you could still kind of sit around your office, think about things and make a few phone calls to people you trusted in your district. You weren’t getting a lot of pressure or a lot of input. Today it is totally different.”