The Daily Caller

The Daily Caller

Reagan’s amnesty didn’t work

Photo of W. James Antle III
W. James Antle III
Editor, The Daily Caller News Foundation

House Speaker John Boehner says it will be tough to get Republicans to vote for “comprehensive immigration reform” as long as they don’t trust President Obama “to enforce the law the way it was written.”

This comes just a day after Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador said advancing such legislation “should” — not “could” — “cost [Boehner] his speakership.”

Republican distrust of Obama is certainly part of the problem. But House Republicans have been hostile to immigration bills of this type since at least 2006, even when they passed a Republican-controlled Senate.

They trusted George W. Bush even when he began to sound like Baghdad Bob about Iraq and they supported John McCain as their presidential nominee in 2008, but still didn’t like this brand of immigration reform.

To figure out why, you have to go back to 1986, when Obama was still a community organizer in Chicago. That’s when Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty that didn’t work.

Reagan was the last unambiguously successful president this country had. If you don’t believe me, look around for stagflation and the Soviet Union. But the immigration amnesty he signed into law failed, a fact that influences the debate over this issue to this day.

Unlike many of his successors in both parties, Reagan was an honest man. He called legalizing illegal immigrants by the correct name — amnesty — rather than shrouding it in euphemisms and weasel words.

The Gipper also didn’t have the benefit of seeing a similar policy fail before, so his willingness to take a gamble on it is more understandable than Bush or McCain’s. That’s why Pat Buchanan and Pete Wilson were on board.

But we now can see the results. The 1986 amnesty legalized approximately 2.7 million illegal immigrants, a much smaller number than the 11 million estimated today. Washington approved 90 percent of the 1.3 million agricultural workers who sought legal status despite detecting fraud in nearly a third of the applications.

The amnesty was supposed to be balanced with stronger enforcement measures, such as employer sanctions for those who hire illegal immigrants. This remains a major selling point of the “comprehensive” approach to immigration today.

This enforcement turned out to be a bait and switch, like when spending cuts are promised in exchange for tax increases. The amnesty happened and is irreversible. The enforcement has been spotty and in some cases never materialized.