A Quarter-Century Later, 1986 Amnesty Still Informs the Immigration Debate
February 05, 2013

A young man rallies for comprehensive immigration reform in 2010. Photo by Richard Morgan

SAN DIEGO -- The last time Congress passed a major immigration bill, one of its goals was to stop the flow of undocumented migrants across the border. But in the years after the bill passed, illegal immigration surged. Today, the bill's legacy has become critical in informing the immigration debate.

In 1984, Congress had just killed an immigration bill that would have legalized up to six million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. President Ronald Reagan was one of its most prominent backers.

“I supported this bill. I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in a 1984 debate against Walter Mondale. “I’m going to do everything I can -- and all of us in the administration are -- to join in again when Congress is back at it to get an immigration bill that will give us once again control of our borders.”

Control of the border was key, because the Immigration Reform and Control Act was supposed to solve the nation’s immigration problems.

The bill, which finally passed in 1986, provided for three main reforms: legalizing the millions of immigrants already in the country, increasing border enforcement, and penalties for employers who hired unauthorized workers in order to stop the flow of new illegal immigrants.

“The idea was that if you just granted an amnesty, that would do nothing more than to encourage future illegal immigration," said Peter Nuñez, who was the U.S. attorney for California's southern district at time time, where he prosecuted many immigration cases. He now serves on the board of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for more immigration restrictions.

"And that’s exactly what happened, because the two enforcement provisions never materialized," he said.

After 1986, border security barely improved. Employer penalties weren’t enforced. By 1989, close to two million people were crossing the border illegally each year.

Now, 26 years later, the legacy of that bill is coming back to haunt proponents of a second amnesty, which they now more euphemistically call a path to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants. Like losing coaches studying the post-game video, they’re looking back on the 1986 bill to understand what went wrong.

Conservatives like Nuñez argue that illegal immigration soared because the amnesty encouraged it, and that the same will happen this time.

“All you need to do is look at the lessons we have taught. Come here, and sooner or later, we’ll let you stay," he said.

But this is 2013. A lot has happened in a quarter-century.

“People love to beat up on 1986," said Demetrios Papademetriou, who advised lawmakers on the ’86 bill and now directs the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “Things have changed dramatically. We have invested extraordinary resources in gaining control on the border and in trying to do interior enforcement, which is equally difficult.”

Today, hundreds of miles of fence and thousands more agents line the border. The Obama administration has deported more people and fined more employers than any of its predecessors.

It’s has taken a long time, Papademetriou said, but "is this a failure of 1986? I don’t think so. 1986 allowed the legal requirements that allowed for these things to evolve.”

What he means is that without the 1986 law, it would be difficult for lawmakers or the public to even conceive of immigration reform as they do today. Back then, building up the border seemed a gargantuan task. Fining employers for hiring people who were already in the country was a novel idea.

But today, they’re both happening. Perhaps not the way many would like, but enough for the President to tout those efforts as justification for seeking another amnesty.

Papademetriou said the one big failure of the 1986 bill was that it didn’t allow for future legal immigration to meet workforce needs. That helps explain why illegal immigration soared after 1986, he said, as opposed to the view that migrants came to the U.S. hoping for another amnesty.

While many conservatives don't agree with that assessment, they do agree that in 2013, the legal immigration system is just one more thing that needs fixing.