Immigration debate recalls 1986 law


With the U.S. Senate's approval of a landmark immigration bill last week, setting up a showdown with the House, some policymakers say moving forward depends on looking back.

Twenty years back, to be precise.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill featuring, among other things, widespread legalization of illegal immigrants, tougher border enforcement and measures aimed at eliminating the hiring of unauthorized workers. The current Senate proposal includes similar features.

"Here we are again," said Bill King, who led the 1986 amnesty program in the western United States for what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's almost as if today's politicians are resurrecting the transcripts and speeches from 1986."

For better or worse, the law has become a key reference point in the debate about how best to reform a still-dysfunctional immigration system.

The law awarded green cards to 2.7 million migrants, helping them climb out of the shadows and offering them the opportunity to rise into the American middle class. For people like Apolonia Calderon, a 74-year-old Palm Desert, Calif., resident, the amnesty was a "blessing" that helped her nearly double her wages and set her on a path to citizenship, which she obtained recently.

But the law failed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, whose numbers have more than doubled from more than 5 million two decades ago to an estimated 12 million today. Several problems clearly were not resolved: porous borders, spotty employer enforcement and the national hunger for a stable, cheap work force.

That record offers lessons to the nation as Senate and House conferees prepare to reconcile their versions of immigration legislation in coming weeks. The House bill emphasizes enforcement at the border and in the workplace, and the Senate version, with less stringent enforcement measures, would create a pathway to citizenship for much of the nation's illegal population.

Critics of the bills say that they lack sufficient money for enforcement in the workplace and that the Senate version creates elaborate criteria for legalization that could be unenforceable and vulnerable to fraud.

In a measure of how the 1986 law figures in the debate, many critics derisively call the Senate bill "amnesty" legislation, while many defenders reject the term, emphasizing that qualified applicants must, among other things, pay fines and back taxes.

"The principal lesson learned is that if you reward illegal behavior, you entice more of it," said Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA, a Virginia-based immigration control group.

Supporters of the bill, however, say it contains major improvements over the 1986 law. One of the most important, they say, is a program providing 200,000 new temporary visas annually for low-skilled workers. The program recognizes the U.S. demand for foreign labor and seeks to regulate it, they say.

"It's like the difference between Prohibition and realistic liquor laws," said Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy, a New York-based think tank.

California farmers, too, hail the Senate proposal for correcting what they say was a key problem of the 1986 amnesty: the widespread exodus of migrant laborers from the fields once they received legal status. The Senate bill requires newly legalized farm workers to stay in their jobs three to five years before moving to other industries.

Under the 1986 law, immigrants who had lived illegally in the United States since before 1982 were eligible for temporary resident status, and for permanent residency within 18 months after that, if they met certain requirements, including learning English.

The program, which took effect in 1987, also covered up to 350,000 people who had worked in U.S. agriculture at least 90 days in each of three years.

Many veterans of the 1986 reform effort agree that the law's legalization program was, by and large, a success.

Teresa Watanabe and Anna Gorman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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