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.