The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reagan’s war on drugs also waged war on immigrants

Lawmakers are undoing the worst parts of 1980s drug legislation, but they have forgotten its ties to immigration enforcement.

President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan wave to inauguration onlookers at the Capitol building in 1981. (AP)

Thirty-five years ago today, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (ADAA) of 1986 into law. It mandated long prison sentences for convictions for small amounts of crack, a form of cocaine then widely associated with Black sellers and users, and it permitted leniency for people caught with the pricier powder version of the same drug.

The legislation has since become one the most notorious artifacts of the bipartisan War on Drugs — a prime example of how lawmakers targeted Black communities for policing and incarceration. Last month, the House approved a bill to undo the sentencing disparities. If the Senate follows suit, it could bring relief to people locked up for years under the old law.

But a lesser-known section of the ADAA helped furnish a legacy that few in Congress want to roll back, even though it also enables the forced removal of people from their communities. This clause ordered the creation of a pilot project to use computers to link police with federal immigration agents in four cities. The goal was to make it easier to deport noncitizens accused of violating drug laws.

Over time, the initiative evolved and combined with others to form the basis for nationwide programs used to deport people charged with all sorts of offenses. Like the sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, these programs are grounded in racial prejudice and driven by impulses to punish and exclude.

The growing emphasis on drugs, crime and immigrants in the 1980s reflected trends in specific places, including some that had been peripheral to earlier immigration policy debates. Six years before the Anti-Drug Abuse Act passed, South Florida saw the sudden arrival of nearly 125,000 Cubans in a mass migration known as the Mariel boatlift. An initially warm welcome quickly grew hostile.

First, reports circulated that some of the newcomers had been incarcerated before they left Cuba. Then the press highlighted claims about the violent and illicit activities of certain “Mariel Cubans,” particularly those working in the cocaine trade, which had carved out a hub in Miami as U.S. demand for the drug soared.

Long-standing associations of Blackness with criminality affected how Miamians saw the new arrivals, many of whom were people of African descent. Some Mariel Cubans broke laws, though they committed trespassing and robbery far more often than homicide. The public and politicians tended to exaggerate the threat they posed while ignoring how racial bias informed the targeted policing that brought many of them into the criminal legal system in the first place.

Some in South Florida responded by demanding a crackdown. In 1982, a Dade County grand jury filed a report claiming that the area suffered from “twin problems” — migrants and drugs. The authors railed against “the federal failure to stem the flow of illegal aliens.” The arrival of tens of thousands of Black asylum seekers from Haiti alongside the boatlift Cubans had contributed to the reactionary climate that produced the grand jury report. The authors singled out “Mariel criminals” in their complaints and their proposed solution: a system connecting local police with immigration agents to make it easier to deport noncitizens who had been arrested on criminal charges.

State officials and the Florida congressional delegation took those demands to Washington, joining forces with politicians from other regions with large immigrant populations, including Southern California and the New York City area. While the politics of immigration enforcement had long centered on international borders and ports of entry, anti-immigrant organizations and a rising number of lawmakers wanted authorities to surveil all U.S. communities more intensely. To achieve that, they advocated precisely the sort of local-federal collaboration that had been envisioned by the Dade County grand jury and which later came to fruition in the ADAA.

The computer-based pilot project established through the ADAA began in Miami and three other cities. It was part of an emerging program focused on deporting “criminal aliens,” a vague term popularized by law enforcement to inflate the perceived threat of Mexican immigrants without lawful status. Initially, members of Congress frequently applied it to groups of Mariel Cubans, Haitians and Jamaicans in hearings on immigration and drug trafficking. But, over the next decade, new laws and policies helped immigration agencies galvanize support for aggressive enforcement because they could cast an ever-broader swath of people as “criminal aliens,” including many with only a misdemeanor conviction and others whose sole transgression was reentering the country without authorization.

In the meantime, anti-immigrant activists pushed a basically false story about connections between immigration and crime. Their drive to expel people who had been in the United States for years and dramatically cut future immigration escalated during a time when many of those arriving came from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Like contemporary nativists, they periodically invoked the specter of “hardcore criminals” who came in the Mariel boatlift to support their case for extremely restrictive policies.

In 2006, the recently established Department of Homeland Security consolidated several ongoing efforts to form the “Criminal Alien Program.” An initiative known as “Secure Communities” debuted two years later. Through an agreement with the FBI, Secure Communities provides immigration agents with access to the fingerprints of people arrested by local police all over the country and runs them through a federal immigration database. The system then flags individuals who might be deportable.

Immigrant rights groups called for an end to the program almost as soon as it launched because it was enabling racial profiling and sweeping up people with deep community ties — and some with lawful status — who had no criminal records or whose only offenses were traffic violations. Studies also found that this sort of program disproportionately affects Black immigrants because racially targeted policing makes it more likely that they will be caught up in the local criminal legal systems that now serve as entry points into the deportation pipeline.

In response to pressure from activists, the Obama White House rebranded Secure Communities and tried to tailor it to focus on supposedly “serious criminals.” The Trump administration promptly reversed that decision, and now President Biden is attempting to impose constraints once again. But all along, agents from the Criminal Alien Program have used essentially the same system to mark people for deportation. From 2009 to 2019, various versions of Secure Communities facilitated the removal of over 686,000 people from their communities.

After decades of work from organizers and advocates, Congress may finally end the sentencing disparities it created in the 1980s. In the meantime, programs with roots in the same War on Drugs legislation have become part of a basic immigration enforcement infrastructure that lawmakers from both major parties take for granted. At least as much pressure will be needed to force more of them to question it instead.