By any measure, 1996 was a remarkable year. Both parties came together in Washington and passed sweeping reforms on two contentious issues — welfare and immigration.
His statement was too optimistic, it seems. Subsequent administrations — especially the Obama and Biden administrations — have chipped away at both of those bipartisan reforms. And the Biden administration attempted to dismantle one of the last remaining mainstays of immigration reform, the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, in arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in April.
If you listen to the media, you might believe that “Remain in Mexico” is the cruel invention of President Donald Trump. But it was a key provision of the 1996 immigration reform bill, formally called Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which Rep. Lamar Smith introduced. And then-Sen. Joe Biden voted for it.
The impetus for this reform was a disturbing trend. The left began to tie illegal immigration to the civil rights movement — as if everyone in the world has a right to enter into the United States freely and partake of our generosity. But the fact is that immigration and civil rights are two very different issues.
Did IIRIRA stop illegal immigration? Not completely — but it made the U.S. more secure. As President Clinton pointed out when he signed the law, it strengthened “the rule of law by cracking down on illegal immigration at the border, in the workplace, and in the criminal justice system — without punishing those living in the United States legally.”
It made our border more secure, it bolstered our Border Patrol by adding thousands of agents, and it made it easier to deport migrants who commit crimes in our nation. And it allowed local law enforcement personnel to assist in enforcing immigration policies.
That allowed groups such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation to lead the way in finding ways for states to step up when administrations such as Biden’s stand down at the border. TPPF’s Right on Immigration initiative has been supportive of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, and we continue to seek ways to return the rule of law to our immigration process. I, Greg Sindelar, have the privilege of leading this group.
So why is IIRIRA back in the news? Because of the Biden administration’s inability to stay in its own lane. Hearkening back to President Obama with his pen and phone, Biden — whose party controls both chambers of Congress — is trying to do with executive orders what should be done by legislation.
That’s because he knows he doesn’t have the votes — or American opinion — on his side. Biden’s intention to end Title 42, one of the few functioning constraints on the flow of migrants into the U.S., has divided his own party.
“A number of Democrats have spoken out against the Biden administration’s move and even signed on to a bill to stop it,” Roll Call reports. “Some, such as Sens. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., face close reelection races. Others, including Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., have concerns reflective of their conservative states.”
What this shows is that while the parties have never seemed more divided on the issue, most Americans themselves aren’t. Fully 62% of respondents in a recent poll disapprove of the way the Biden administration is handling immigration, with only 38% saying they approve of it. What Americans want is an immigration system that works—that secures our border and ensures that those who enter the U.S. come in through the front door.
In today’s Democratic Party, a centrist like President Clinton couldn’t win a single primary. But it wasn’t very long ago when the two parties came together and hashed out bipartisan immigration reform. If it happened once, there’s hope it can happen again.
Former Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and its Immigration Subcommittee. He represented the 21st Congressional District for 32 years. Greg Sindelar is Chief Executive Officer of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.