Immigration reform’s flaws revealed in the 1986 amnesty

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) signed into law by President Reagan is often described as a three-legged stool. The three main components were a big amnesty for the estimated million or so aliens who were illegally in the U.S., strengthened border controls to keep more aliens from entering the U.S., and sanctions on employers to prevent the future employment of illegal aliens. The idea was that the amnesty would not attract more illegal immigrants to the U.S. because they would be deterred by stronger border controls and employer sanctions.

It didn’t work, as evidenced by the more than 11 million illegal aliens believed to be in the U.S. today. One reason that IRCA resulted in increased illegal immigration was that border controls alone are insufficient to prevent increases in the illegal alien population, both because it’s hard to control the border, and because as many as half the illegal alien population is believed to have overstayed temporary visas rather than crossing the border without inspection. And employer sanctions proved to be completely ineffective in preventing the employment of illegal aliens by employers determined to profit by paying the lowest possible wages.

I’ve always said that the 1986 Act had a fourth leg to its stool which was wishful thinking. And that pattern of a four-legged stool was copied in the failed attempts to enact a second and bigger general amnesty for illegal aliens in 2006, 2007, and in the current year 2013.

Each time the proponents of another amnesty argue that this time will be different. This time, unlike in 1986, the border controls and employer sanctions will work to deter future illegal immigration. I’m reminded of the philosopher George Santayana who famously said that, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.”

Border control is difficult because we have long borders. We can strengthen border security in sectors of the border, but doing so in California only moves more illegal traffic into the more difficult terrain of Arizona. Strengthening border security in Arizona moves more illegal traffic into south Texas. It’s like trying to squeeze a water balloon, difficult to squeeze everywhere all at once. Throwing money at the border does nothing to stop holders of temporary visas from illegally overstaying.

The latest manifestation of employer sanctions is called E-Verify, an on-line service provided by the federal government by which employers who choose to do so can quickly verify whether those seeking work are legally authorized. The Senate-passed immigration reform bill would make E-Verify eventually mandatory for all employers. This should be done independently of amnesty, but it, too, is not a silver bullet to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

One result of the 1986 IRCA amnesty is the growth of a huge, profitable, and highly sophisticated counterfeit documents industry in the U.S., from which anyone can purchase false birth certificates, social security cards, and any other documents required for a false identity as someone authorized to work in the U.S. That problem is not going away. Many job applicants presenting high quality counterfeit documents to an employer will not be caught by E-Verify. And some U.S. employers will continue to have as their business model hiring the cheapest labor they can find regardless of immigration status.

Illegal immigration is not a problem only for the United States. Australia and many countries in Europe are overwhelmed by the large numbers of foreigners seeking to enter and work in their countries illegally. In a globalized world with easier means of transportation, increased knowledge of the world, and instantaneous communications among immigrants, the reasons for the migration of large numbers of people seeking to improve their lives are completely understandable.

The basic choice for us in the United States is whether to accept all who want to enter and work here without limit, or alternatively to enforce some sort of numerical limit on how many immigrants we will accept every year. I think a coherent, intellectually defensible argument can be made for open borders and accepting all who wish to enter regardless of how many. But I believe that the majority of my fellow citizens would prefer to enforce a numerical limit on immigration as we do now.

Enforcing a numerical limit on immigration, however, is not easy. Someone must decide on the number and what kinds of immigrants should be preferred. Currently that’s our elected Congress. However despised and ridiculed, Congress is still the most legitimate authority for making those decisions on our behalf.

But the biggest problem in enforcing a numerical immigration limit is the inherent corollary that we say no to millions of would-be immigrants who remind us of our ancestors. They are not criminals or national security threats, and only want to work hard for a better life for themselves and their families. We have to say no to them not because they’re bad people, but simply because admitting them would exceed the numerical limit we have enacted. And if they enter illegally, we have to try to remove them if our numerical limit is to mean anything.

It’s a hard choice. But it’s a binary choice. No limits or limits. The reason our immigration system seems so unsatisfactory is actually because we are unwilling to make that hard choice. We keep searching for a third and easier way. Like keeping the numerical limits in our law, but not actually enforcing them, and instead enacting immigration amnesty whenever the number of illegal immigrants becomes large. I call that a formula for permanent dysfunction.

If there’s no numerical limit on immigration that you would be willing to enforce against people like your own ancestors, then just admit that you’re for open borders without a limit on immigration. Don’t pretend to be for a four-legged stool that doesn’t work.

As Senator Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the four-legged stool, on April 23, 2013, correctly noted, “We are the most generous nation on earth to immigrants, allowing over 1 million people a year to come here legally.” The U.S. actually admits more permanent legal immigrants with a clear path to full citizenship than all the rest of the nations of the world combined, every year. That doesn’t sound like a “broken” immigration system as Senator Rubio and President Obama claim. That sounds like an immigration system worthy of American values.

I conclude by quoting what President Bill Clinton, now a supporter of the four-legged stool, said in a commencement speech at Portland State University in Oregon on June 13, 1998: “It’s wrong to condone illegal immigration that flouts our laws, strains our tolerance, taxes our resources. Even a nation of immigrants must have rules and conditions and limits, and when they are disregarded, public support for immigration erodes in ways that are destructive to those who are newly arrived and those who are still waiting patiently to come.”

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