Reagan-Era Immigration Policies Affecting Us Today


If not today’s Democrats or Republicans, maybe Reagan?

It is common in today’s discourse for each side of the immigration debate to pin the blame on the other side, whether it be Republicans blaming Obama’s current “permissive” stance or Democrats faulting Republicans for immigration reform’s legislative stalemate.

However, a new voice has cast the blame thirty years in the past, and assigned our current migratory woes to former President Reagan’s immigration policies. Experts now refer to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration law, popularly known as the “Reagan Amnesty”, which granted legal status to around three million people in the country, as the starting point of today’s discussion.

Although such legalization seems uncharacteristic of Reagan’s Republican character, his political move was meant to be a fresh start for the US’s immigration system and was to follow up the legalization with strict enforcement of new laws, including barring employers from hiring workers without permission to work in the country.

These latter goals were never achieved, neither under Reagan, nor under George H.W. Bush in 1990, or even Bill Clinton in 1996. Now with the close of Obama’s presidency, we can say once more that the presidential goal of immigration reform failed.

The current presidential candidates likewise promise to fix our immigration system while simultaneously blaming each other or the previous administration.

Mark Krikorian, executive director for Center For Immigration Studies, disagree with both sides, and asserts that “there isn’t one person responsible.” More sensibly, he lays the blame on the 1986 law, which promised to reform immigration law while paradoxically legalizing millions of people and erasing any incentive to follow through on the promises.

The initial plan of barring employers from hiring unauthorized workers manifested itself with the E-Verify system, the effectiveness of which is still debated by lawmakers and the business community. Any attempt to reform even this aspect of the initial proposition has encountered still opposition in Congress.

The final consensus remains: This is not a new problem, and the likelihood of an instant solution in the next election is elusive, if not fantastical.