As President Obama and lawmakers from both parties begin to take their first tentative steps toward again rewriting the nation’s immigration laws, opponents warn that they are repeating the mistakes of the 1986 act, which failed to solve the problems that it set out to address. Critics contend that the law actually contributed to making the situation worse.
An estimated 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States when the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed. Now there are upwards of 11 million. And the question of who gets to be an American, far from being settled, has been inflamed.
The latest proposals contain the same three components as the 1986 law: a legalization program — and a possible path to citizenship — for those who are in the country illegally, stepped-up enforcement along the border, and measures to discourage employers from hiring workers who lack proof of legal residency.
“This is the same old formula we’ve dealt with before, including when it passed in 1986, and that is a promise of enforcement and immediate amnesty,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said last week
on the Laura Ingraham radio show. “And of course, the promises of enforcement never materialize. The amnesty happens immediately, the millisecond the bill is signed into law.”
But immigration experts note that the country has undergone big changes since then. And the experience of what went wrong after 1986 might help policymakers get it right this time.
“There’s just an entirely different mentality,” said Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Bill Clinton administration and who now directs immigration policy studies at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Technology affords new means of enforcing sanctions against hiring illegal immigrants, for instance, and Americans in the post-9/11 world may have lost some of their squeamishness about carrying tamper-proof government identification or submitting personal information to a national database. Meanwhile, businesses are eager to come up with a legal system of immigration that can more quickly adapt to their constantly changing labor needs.
Still, “the problem is always in the details, and that was certainly true in 1986. Once the debate got into the details, the compromises proved to be counterproductive,” said Susan F. Martin, director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, who in the 1990s served as executive director of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.