by Mike Scruggs
According to Ronald Reagan himself, as told to his trusted long-time friend and U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, the biggest mistake of his presidency was signing the l986 amnesty for what turned out to be more than half the five million illegal immigrants in the country. Reagan was uncomfortable with the amnesty but was persuaded by some of the leaders of his own party (still living) that it would only affect a small number of illegal immigrants and would assure that Congress would follow through with more vigorous enforcement of U.S. immigration laws. The misnamed Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 was touted by its supporters as “comprehensive immigration reform” that would grant amnesty only to a few long-settled immigrants and strengthen border security and internal immigration enforcement against employers who were hiring illegal immigrants.
Internal enforcement was critical to Reagan. He knew that the real key to stopping illegal immigration was to cut off the job magnet at the employment place. He was also honest enough to call what he believed would only be a small amnesty by its real name—amnesty. He did not try to deceive the American people into thinking it was not really an amnesty, a deception much in vogue with many politicians today.
There are various accounts of how many amnesties were expected with passage of the 1986 amnesty. Figures range from 300,000 (Gingrich, who voted for it) to about 2.1 million. Some reasonable estimates center around 1.2 million. The actual result was 2.7 million. Close to one third of the amnesties given were based on document fraud.
For the first six months after the amnesty there was a modest fall in illegal immigration, but within 12 months illegal immigration was breaking all previous records, rising to 800,000 per year. Friends and relatives of the newly legalized immigrants began to pour into the United States. They were followed by more illegal job seekers who saw continued opportunities for more amnesties. In fact, the 1986 amnesty resulted in six more amnesties from 1994 to 2000, awarding legal status to another 3.0 million illegal immigrants. By 1997, the number of illegal immigrants in the country was already back up to the 5.0 million in the U.S. before the 1986 amnesty. Amnesty has proved to be a slippery slope. Amnesties beget more amnesties and more illegal immigrants. Can you imagine the consequences of amnesty for the 11 million or more illegals now in the United States?
There were 5.0 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 1986 because we had allowed cheap-labor special interests to dominate immigration policy to the point of non-enforcement. We had become lax on border security and had ceased to enforce immigration laws at the workplace. Lack of enforcement at the workplace was by far the more important of the two chief causes of illegal immigration, as it is today.
Reagan thought he was trading a small amnesty for all-important workplace enforcement and increased border security. But once the amnesty was done and multiplying far beyond expectations, the special interests went to work at killing enforcement at the employment place. The chief culprits were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and large agriculture corporations that lobbied Congress into backing off enforcement.
According to a 1997 report by the Center for Immigration Studies, the cost of amnesty for 2.7 million illegal immigrants had accumulated to $156.7 billion (in 1986 dollars!) by 1997. The net cost after $78 billion in tax collections was $78.7 billion dollars. This amounts to a subsidy per amnestied illegal of $29,148 in 1986 dollars, which is an important indirect subsidy for the employers of illegal workers. But U.S. workers paid the highest price. The 1986 amnesty displaced 1,872,000 American workers over the next decade. This and downward pressure on American wages are not adequately accounted for in the report. In fact, downward pressure on U.S. worker income may be the largest cost to the American economy of amnesty and excess immigration levels.
Only 36 percent of the 1986 amnesty recipients spoke English well, and only 28 percent of those over age 24 had graduated from high school.
Recently the liberal media has been pushing its pro-amnesty agenda by painting a false picture of Reagan on immigration and amnesty. Reagan saw that illegal immigration was becoming a big problem and wanted to stop it. He was persuaded to allow a relatively small amnesty as a bargaining chip to strengthen border security, and more importantly, workplace enforcement. Reagan wanted to fine employers $3,000 to $10,000 for each illegal immigrant deliberately hired. Congress betrayed him on the enforcement measures and probably the extent and eventual costs of the amnesty. Blindness to likely consequences and costs of social legislation seems to be an inherent characteristic of liberal politicians of both major parties. One of the great shortcomings of progressives is their inability to progress to step 2 or 3 in thinking through the logical consequences of legislation. They have an unshakeable faith in the wisdom of the latest poll of uninformed voters. Reagan should have known better than to trust the happy-clappy liberals and servants of the big dollar lobbyists. He made a big mistake, but he admitted it.
Ronald Reagan was not comfortable with amnesty. He was pro-enforcement, and he admitted to Edwin Meese that the biggest mistake of his presidency was to sign the 1986 amnesty. We should learn from the wisdom Reagan gained by bitter experience. Any amnesty is a slippery slope to national economic and social disaster.