It has been more than three decades since the country began a landmark experiment in how to balance the necessity of controlling the nation’s borders against the ideal of welcoming those who aspire to being an American.
Then, a largely unknown 35-year-old representative from Brooklyn was in the thick of the negotiations. The day that President Ronald Reagan signed the result — the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act — into law, that congressman summed up what many were thinking.
“The bill is a gamble,” Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “a riverboat gamble.”
The 1986 law gets mentioned frequently these days. Its miscalculations and unanticipated consequences helped turn immigration into the scorching issue that it is today.
Where there were believed to be a maximum of 5 million people living illegally in the United States in 1986, there are more than double that number now.
However, the mistake was not that the law gave amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, which many on the right argue created an incentive for more people to come across the border illegally.
The 1986 act failed to achieve its goals because the federal government never enforced the penalties it was supposed to impose on employers who hired undocumented workers. It also offered no flexibility to deal with the changing labor needs of an economy that was undergoing enormous transformation.
The magical thinking was not in passing a big, ambitious immigration law. It was in underestimating the resources it would take to implement it, and in not recognizing that immigration is an engine in need of constant tuneup.
That is why the lessons of 1986 are not arguments for building a wall or for putting drastic limitations on legal immigration.
Or for gridlock.
But that is what we are left with. This week, the Senate failed to come up with an answer for the relatively straightforward problem of what to do about hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country by their parents. Many of them have never known anywhere else as home.
Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, declared: “This is the moment for a narrow bill. And every ounce of energy is going into finding one that can pass.”
Instead, four separate proposals went down in the Senate.
So maybe it is time to begin thinking big again on immigration. The conversation should start not with fears of what might happen if Congress does act, but the consequences that await if it does not.
Those potential effects go far beyond the fates of the estimated 700,000 dreamers, though their plight has elicited such sympathy that 8 in 10 Americans believe they should be allowed to stay.
An immigraton system suspended in the amber of the 20th century also leaves the United States at a disadvantage to more nimble countries in attracting the brightest, most educated minds.
And it forces people who are in the prime of their working years to live underground, depriving the government of payroll taxes that will be needed to support a growing population of retirees and leaving those here illegally more vulnerable to exploitation.
Perhaps most damaging of all, continued delay in updating the immigration system creates an illusion that American society itself can be insulated from the forces of globalism and multiculturalism. It allows the debate to be dominated by nativist voices — including the one that emanates from the Oval Office — accelerating the corrosion and cynicism of our political system.
“It’s like an open wound that’s festering,” said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that has been critical of the Trump administration. “You can apply some ointment and all that, but unless you find the antidote, you are not going to be able to close the wound.”
A wall is not going to give this nation the kind of immigration system it needs. It is time to think about building a table — and figuring out how to bring everyone back to it.
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