The Gipper and Immigration, One More Time


Powerline’s Paul Mirengoff and I have been going back and forth on this. First I published a column in the Wall Street Journal. Then Paul took Ronald Reagan and me to task. And then I defended the Gipper (and my little self).

Below, Paul has the last word.

Well, almost the last word. If you scroll to the very bottom, you’ll see that I pick a couple of nits.

But here’s my wise friend Paul:

It’s always preferable to agree, rather than disagree, with Peter Robinson. So I’m happy to see that we agree as to what position Ronald Reagan would take today regarding immigration reform. We both think Reagan would insist that the federal government enforce existing immigration laws before enacting new statutes that grant amnesty. Accordingly, we agree that Reagan would have opposed President Bush’s 2006 proposed comprehensive immigration reform proposal.

Peter and I also agree that the 1986 immigration reform law that Reagan signed into law was a failure. The “liberal” part of it succeeded; millions of illegal immigrants received amnesty. However, the “conservative” part failed; the provisions designed to prevent future illegal immigration were not enforced.

Where Peter and I disagree is on the question of whether, or to what extent, this failure was predictable. I think it was. However, in fairness to Peter, and to Reagan, I admit that things typically seem predictable after they occur.

Yet, it’s the lessons I learned from Reagan and some of the intellectuals associated with him that make the failure of the 1986 law seem so unsurprising. One such lesson is that the government is very good at conferring status, privileges, and benefits but not very good at administering programs.

Earlier this week, I read that one of the agencies involved in the Gulf Coast disaster planning approved a plan that includes details for protecting the Gulf’s walrus population and instructions for contacting a scientist who has been dead for five years. This kind of story was the staple of many a Reagan speech on “the rubber chicken circuit” during the 1960s and 1970s. Why, then, was he confident that the government would effectively enforce the immigration laws?

Such confidence seems all the more misplaced one when considers that, unlike disaster planning, immigration enforcement has an ideological dimension. It’s difficult enough for the government to administer complex programs when it’s acting in good faith. When liberal bureaucrats have ideological reservations about what they are asked to do, as I believe was the case with the 1986 legislation, the prospects for success are bleak.

Perhaps the Reagan administration in its prime could have ridden herd over the immigration bureaucracy. But the administration was on its way out when the time came to enforce the 1986 act. And it was predictable that a successor administration would indulge in benign neglect or worse.

Peter notes that the 1986 legislation was “tightly drawn” and adequately funded. But from Reagan and the Reaganites I learned to be skeptical of claims that tightly drawn laws and lots of funding will affect the world in the ways they are intended to (the law of unintended consequences, and all that). Why wasn’t there more such skepticism when it came to this law? My guess is that the admirable humanitarian side of Reagan got the better of the Reagan conservative in this instance.

Peter cites the portion of the 1986 law that required employers to verify their workers’ legal status. This portion of the law ran counter to both the desire of corporate America to hire whom it pleased without risking penalties and the sensibilities of liberal America, which sympathized profoundly with illegal aliens who wanted to work. As such, it was a long shot, at best. In 1986, as a practitioner of both employment law and (to a slight extent) immigration law, I heard plenty of skepticism from employers about whether employer sanctions would become an entrenched part of the true legal landscape. That skepticism was well-founded.

I agree with Peter about the enduring relevance of Reagan. But when it comes to immigration reform, I believe that underlying Reaganite theories about the limits of government are a better guide than his 1986 position on the specific issue at hand.

In any event, the key point is that, this time around, Reagan’s position would be a very Reaganite one — “trust but verify.”


Nit the first: Whereas Reagan would, I believe, have insisted on “fixing the borders first,” which is the way Jeb Bush puts it, I also believe he’d have favored, ultimately–that is, after we’d fixed the borders–some sort of comprehensive immigration reform of the kind proposed in 2006 by Jeb’s big brother. I wouldn’t want to argue, right here, that Reagan would have been right about that. But the record of his fundamental openness to immigration–and his admiration for immigrants themselves–is unambiguous. He’d have wanted some way to normalize, over time, the immigrants who are here illegally, not a massive effort to kick them all out.

Nit the second: Paul can’t understand why the Gipper would ever have expected the government to enforce the “conservative” portions of the 1986 immigration bill in the first place. I can. The legislation was based largely on the work of a commission appointed by the Democrat Jimmy Carter and chaired by the Democrat Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then the president of Notre Dame. “We recommend,” Hesburgh wrote in the final report, “opening the front door to legal migration a little more in the interests of this country…[but also] closing the back door to undocumented, illegal migration.” Well. With one of the leading liberal Democrats in the nation producing a final report like that, didn’t the Gipper have grounds for supposing that the Democrats would want to regain control of the borders just as fervently as did he himself? Ed Meese couldn’t recall, when I spoke to him last month, that the 1986 legilsation provoked any particular debate inside the Reagan White House, and Pete Wilson, then in the Senate, voted in favor of the darned thing. Maybe Paul can get away with suggesting that Reagan could prove, from time to time, sweetly naive. But Ed Meese? Or Pete Wilson? As best I can tell (and I was in the White House myself at the time) nobody–and I mean nobody–ever supposed that the government would engage in such a complete and utter dereliction of duty that the number of illegal immigrants would rise to 12 million.

But if we disagree on the historical point–that is, about what people might or might not have reasonably been expected to foresee–Paul and I most definitely agree on this: That when it comes to the federal government, things can get much worse, much faster than even those who consider themselves skeptics and conservatives might imagine.

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    A glaring absence from all these WWRD exchanges about immigration is any mention of 9/11. Reagan had the protection of Americans first in his agenda as president, and so I would imagine 9/11 would have had a profound impact on his attitudes vis-a-vis the border, assimilation of immigrants, and maybe even country-of-origin considerations. No?

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  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    “Trust is the coin of the realm.” –George Schultz. I think, at least domestically, Reagan believed that too. Trouble is, not everyone on the other side did.

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  3. Profile Photo Inactive

    If your second nit is correct, then it seems the Democratic Party did not, overall, project the same philosophy on immigration as it does today (the current philosophy being, “Forget laws and justice. Get them to vote!”).

    I was born in 1980, so I have only known a Democratic Party dominated by liberalism. My earliest political memory is watching the Berlin Wall torn down on TV. I understand the party was not always so liberal, but was it really so different less than 30 years ago?

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  4. Profile Photo Editor

    I think that’s a crucial point, Scott. It’s inconceivable that Reagan wouldn’t see border control vastly differently, after 9/11, from how he saw it in 1986.

    And also, the numbers: 12 million illegals really is a tipping point.

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  5. Profile Photo Member
    Aaron Miller:I understand the party was not always so liberal, but was it really so different less than 30 years ago? · Jun 26 at 9:56pm

    The best I can tell is we’re living in an era in which there is a great “purifying” of the parties. Whereas they both used to be more mixed bags, now Dems are almost exclusively center-left, and Repubs center-right. I think (and hope) that this improved clarity, this knowing-what-we’re-getting, will work to our advantage, since presumably we’re a center-right nation.

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  6. Profile Photo Inactive

    And now, in the current administration, we have Secretary of Labor Solis in a recent PSA stating that undocumented, illegal workers deserve to be paid fairly!

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