What Would Reagan Have Done about Immigration? The Gipper–and Paul Mirengoff


Commenting on my Wall Street Journal column this past week on Reagan and immigration, Paul Mirengoff of Powerline asks, in effect, Who cares?

The problem…is that Reagan’s record on immigration is a poor one. He signed legislation in 1986 that granted amnesty to millions of illegal aliens but also included provisions to prevent future illegal immigration. Predictably, the grant of amnesty “succeeded” while the preventative measures turned out to be a joke. Given this record, it’s not clear why we should look to Reagan for guidance on immigration issues except perhaps as a reverse barometer.

The error in that paragraph comes down to a single word: “predictably.” When Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act back in 1986, he had no reason to suppose that only the “reform” and not the “control” provisions would ever be put into effect. The legislation was tightly drawn. And the new enforcement provisions that it mandated were aggressive–remarkably so, I thought when I looked them over. Perhaps most notably, the legislation required employers throughout the country to verify their workers’ legal status, thus supplementing the single line at the border with a defense in depth.

The legislation provided the funding for these new provisions. And it had broad, bipartisan support–for that matter, it was based on the findings of a commission on immigration that Jimmy Carter had established and that Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, had chaired. Attorney General at the time, Ed Meese, with whom I discussed all this last month, saw no reason to suppose the legislation wouldn’t be put into effect. Even Pete Wilson, then in the Senate, and with whom I also spoke about all this last month, voted “aye.”

In signing the 1986 legislation, then, Reagan wasn’t being soft-headed or naive. He believed he had a deal. “The amnesty was to take care of the illegal immigrants who were already here,” as Mr. Meese told me, “and the enforcement provisions were to make sure no more entered.”

It didn’t work out that way, obviously enough. As I tried to suggest in my column–and this is the central point–no one would have been angrier about the failure of the government to enforce that 1986 legislation than Ronald Reagan himself. To elaborate just a little here’s a graf I had to cut (although the Journal has the most generous, longsuffering editors on earth, a newspaper is a newspaper; there’s only so much space):

“The government didn’t do what was necessary to support the enforcement mechanisms in the ’86 Act,” former Attorney General Meese told me. That’s putting the matter mildly. In the nearly a quarter of a century since Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal government has engaged in a protracted dereliction of duty, failing, utterly, to regain control of our borders. Instead of dropping, the number of illegal immigrants in the country has quadrupled. “I voted for the 1986 legislation,” Pete Wilson, who served in the Senate at the time, told me recently. “But as it became clear that the federal government wasn’t going to make any real effort to toughen up enforcement, the amnesty only encouraged even more illegal immigration. ‘Go ahead, cross the border,’ it told people. ‘Don’t wait your turn in line at the embassy in Guadalajara or Mexico City. Get a jump, don’t be a chump.’”

By abandoning its obligations under the 1986 legislation, Reagan would have seen, the federal government turned Reagan himself into a chump. More to the point, he would have seen that it has turned the American people into chumps.

Reagan would have turned 100 next year, and the world that shaped him, and that he in turn did so much to shape, is, I grant, rapidly receding. But to those of us who came of age under the man, the question “What would Reagan do?” remains irresistible. And even to those who didn’t, it’s still a useful place to start.

Now to lure Paul Mirengoff–a good friend, gentle in person, fierce in print–over here to Ricochet. I’d like to hear how this strikes him.

There are 9 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Profile Photo Member

    Thanks for the history lesson, Peter. Some of us only know the Reagan years through articles and fondly told anecdotes.

    That’s a fascinating, and terrifying, example of selective enforcement. As I feel compelled to frequently repeat, we are not a nation of laws. We are a nation of human beings with free will. Laws are empty without officials willing to enforce them and citizens willing to obey them.

    Sadly, I think extraordinary stories of violence and gangs laying claim to U.S. territory will be necessary to make the border a political priority. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor: “To the nearly blind, you draw large and startling images; to the deaf, you shout”. Conservatives can’t rely only on politely penned articles to rouse America.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member

    In all my reading on immigration, I’ve never heard a detailed account of why the enforcement portion of the legislation wasn’t out into effect. I just haven’t the foggiest idea why that is, which is strange given how much other stuff I know about immigration politics and policy.

    Does anyone know?

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member

    What struck me about Peter’s article is how closely, in fact, the what-would-Reagan-do hypothetical matches the mainstream Republican–that is, McCain–position, particularly with respect to the “reluctancy” vibe: Reluctantly McCain supports a fence; reluctantly McCain concedes that the fence must be completed before other issues can be addressed; and reluctantly McCain concedes that we must crack down on illegals in order to re-establish the rule of law. Seems identical to our WWRD vision.

    Where McCain strayed from the imaginary Reagan is when–against his better judgment, I suspect–he succumbed to the bitter, us-vs-them crowd in his ad. There was reluctance here, too, no doubt, but not quite so much that it prevented him from agreeing to the angry tone, as it would have prevented Reagan, wisely.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Inactive

    In 1986, there just weren’t that many border hawks around, to keep everybody honest. Nobody was thinking about the extra costs in social services, or the security issues of having so many people living in the shadows. The public didn’t feel like they were the victims. Who doesn’t like cheap strawberries and tomatoes. And the employers certainly weren’t victims–more like accomplices. In 1986, there was no natural constituency that was all fired up over border security. Not like today.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive

    If Reagan was still President…America would regain control of it’s borders, language and it’s culture – to borrow from Michael Savage’s astute observation. American leaders, clearly would vilify Islam as the psuedo-religion it is, the wolf in sheep’s clothing that it is, and the Koran as the unholy book of evil that it is. I believe Reagan would make it illegal for people to walk around like masked bandits under the guise of religion. Reagan would control the United States borders from without as well as from within.

    Reagan would empower our military to patrol our borders and he would support our military personnel, ensuring that the rules of engagement were reasonable rather than to the advantage of our enemy. Reagan would never give any member of our military any reason to fear or think twice about reporting enemies within it’s own ranks because of political correctness, nor would a President Reagan ever imprison members of our military, like Lieutenant Behenna, for valiantly doing their job by killing the enemy.

    It is the enemy within our own government media complex that must first be stopped and crushed in order to preserve our borders.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member

    Conor: Yep, and also this is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, since A) the situation is crisis-level now, B) Reagan wasn’t running for senate in Arizona, and C) he never faced an opponent on his right. In the end, immigration is one of those issues for which there may not be a perfect-pitch political option. That might be the bigger lesson in all this.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member


    I’m guessing the difference in tone on TV is due partly to credibility — since conservatives trusted Ronald Reagan, he didn’t have to show anger to persuade the base that he was serious about something, whereas John McCain is so mistrusted on immigration that he resorts to anger almost as a show of good faith to restrictionists.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive

    I considered Reagan the ultimate ambassador for America. In dealing with immigration he would not alienate anyone while maintaing respect for his authority. I think that building the fence would not be one of his priorities…I think a man who tears down walls does not build fences in his own back yard. As an international lawyer who has dealt with immigration for the past 22 years, I have seen a lot in this area, some of which makes sense to me, and some of which eludes me.

    The problem we face with this issue is two-fold. On a real level, we require some of the workers for many companies to survive. However, I am not in favor of illegal immigration either, and we require controls. The immigration system, as it sits, makes it more effective for employers to hire illegals than undergo long waits for cases that will be severely challenged (ie H2b visa). So they do it. I think Reagan would have been in favor of educating the potential illegals…if they knew the risks, they may think twice. Right now, many illegals seem to think that if they at least enter, there will be amnesty.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Inactive

    As a result, they enter, thinking once they make it through they will be safe. I think Reagan would have tried to find a way to work with Mexico in order to help both of us prevail in this battle. As it stands right now, this seems to be a battle with no end in sight and frankly, after we have the fence built, I don’t think we will see much of a drop in illegal immigration. You plug one hole in a sinking ship and the water exits through another…there has to be a change in fundamental strategy.

    If we look at all the money that is spent on enforcing the borders….we could supply enough money to US companies to hire US workers (ie subsidize) and there would be no jobs for illegals. We could make it clear through education what the laws are in the US and the fact that our laws are not as lenient as they think..the problem now is that the rumors that abound are not based on the reality of the current laws which is why Americans marry illegals daily and expect the laws to bail them out…+++

    • #9
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.