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.
What did materialize was more illegal immigration. By one estimate, illegal immigration increased by 44 percent between 1987 and 1989, from the start of amnesty to its peak. The Congressional Research Service reports that the illegal immigrant population swelled from 3.2 million in 1986 to 12.4 million in 2007, “before leveling off at 11.1 million in 2011.”
Some analysts believe the number of illegal immigrants reached as high as 20 million. The author of a Bear Stearns report arriving at the figure later told the Wall Street Journal, “The assumption that illegal people will fill out a census form is the most ridiculous concept I have ever heard of.”
It’s also worth noting that four years after amnesty became law, President George H.W. Bush signed a bill increasing legal immigration by 40 percent. Legal immigration has also been higher than in the mid-1980s and illegal immigration still increased.
Many Republicans who want to repeat the Reagan amnesty hope this will improve the party’s standing among Hispanics. But the actual Republican Hispanic vote share decreased between 1984, before amnesty, and 1988, after.
George W. Bush is the only Republican who has ever even arguably benefited from advocating these kinds of immigration policies. And he had been conducting Latino outreach for a decade while being to the left of his party on government spending.
As illegal immigration increased, enforcement decreased. Audits of employers of illegal immigrants dropped 77 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 2003. Warnings fell 62 percent. Notices of intent to fine illegal employers plummeted 82 percent.
If Reagan couldn’t get a deal with real enforcement, what hope do Republicans have with Obama? It’s this track record, not talk radio, mean pro-abortion eye doctors, or even the current occupant of the White House, that has the congressional GOP reluctant to sign on.
The modest uptick in enforcement recently, credited with at least half the drop in illegal immigration over the last five years, is not the result of comprehensive reform. It is the result of such bills repeatedly failing to pass.
Both Bush and Obama concluded that amnesty was not politically feasible unless they could show some progress with border security and enforcement. That’s exactly the opposite of comprehensive reform’s logic.
Unlike many of our current political leaders, Reagan actually learned from his mistakes. Conservative are right to celebrate his birthday and successes. They should also avoid repeating his immigration failure.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.
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