Why Are We Stuck on Amnesty? How the Reagan Revolution Solidified Divisions on Immigration


Amnesty. It may be the dirtiest word in American politics.

Every decade, when the immigration debate returns to the forefront of campaign pandering and Washington policy-making, the term is guaranteed to function as a Rorschach test for where the prominent players fall on reform.

But what is amnesty, and who put the word in everyone’s mouth?

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By definition, amnesty is an official pardon for criminal behavior — a practice generally associated with political crimes.

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When it comes to the discourse on immigration, however, it is not quite that simple. In this context, amnesty is the process by which the state forgives illegal immigrants their criminal entry and undocumented residency, granting them legal status.

Citizenship is another question. The United States, in particular, views amnesty and naturalization very differently, with amnesty stopping at state-recognized residency (also known as “green card” status). From here, an individual can, after a period of assimilation and good behavior, pursue uniquely American benefits like the vote and Social Security through the standard naturalization process.

And this exceptional first step on the march toward citizenship is anything but customary. In fact, the idea of immigration amnesty is still relatively young in the American political consciousness, first working its way into the conversation in the Reagan years.

“A Once-Only Great Compromise”

With a bipolar regional economy once again pushing migrant workers north from Mexico in the 1970s, the United States saw an end to the brief immigration lull that followed the Great Arrival and World War era. That lengthy period, now iconic, was defined by a massive influx in legal migration from Europe, processed predominantly at the port of Ellis Island in New York City.

The renewed boom was far less systematic, as workers poured over a sparsely check-pointed border and into the American southwest, searching for the first farm that would take them on. How many illegal immigrants had crossed was not entirely certain, but eventually estimates surpassed one million, making one thing perfectly clear. There was a problem at the border.

Do you support amnesty for illegal immigrants?

In response, Republican President Gerald Ford established the Domestic Council Committee on Illegal Aliens, which would come to report that, whatever their exact number, the illegal immigrant population had depressed American wages, working under the table for less than the minimum. Less than pleased with the committee’s proposed solutions, however, Congress would go on to commission a study of its own.

The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy began its official inquiry in 1978 and, by the end of the Carter era, it had effectively reclassified the border problem as a national disaster. But reformist energy was on the rise in the Republican Party.

Assuming office in 1981, President Ronald Reagan stepped into the White House with an expansive agenda for homeland revival. But eventually falling on his list of priorities was an effort to push Congress to cooperate on signing the Select Commission’s immigration policy solutions into law. Such efforts had come up short in the last decade, with one chamber or the other stonewalling legislation in the eleventh hour.

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The second-term solution was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Quarterbacked by Democratic Rep. Romano Mazzoli and Republican Sen. Alan Simpson, the bill sanctioned the hiring of illegal immigrants and offered amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented residents who had arrived prior to 1982 and were willing to pay back taxes.

According to The Atlantic, it was a “once-only great compromise” — and Reagan was behind it wholeheartedly, despite opposition from ranking advisers.

“We have consistently supported a legalization program which is both generous to the alien and fair to the countless thousands of people throughout the world who seek legally to come to America,” the then-president said in his signing statement.

“The legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

The Optimism of the Reagan Revolution

It was “morning in America,” after all. For the president, that meant more than the policy pursuits of dominant world power status or an economic upswing.

The charismatic Hollywood star and former California governor had set out to spur on a nationwide resurgence of optimism, to make good on the national mythos and draw out the American legend. In Reagan’s view, there was opportunity in America and room for newcomers to enjoy it. The result of that rhetoric was a cultural revolution.

But visionary outlook and unfettered optimism have their drawbacks, according to Center for Immigration Studies director Mark Krikorian, a self-professed Reagan supporter from way back.

“The president had a blind spot on this issue and an understandable one, because he grew up at a time when immigration had already ceased to be a major American phenomenon. The Ellis Island wave ended in 1924, and he came of age not just in a place, but also at a time, when that was history,” he told The Western Journal. “It was like the covered wagons going across the prairie, you know what I mean? So, that you could have a romanticized view of immigration.”

“When you add to that his experience in California, where he would have — you know, he knew about farmers using illegal immigrant Mexican workers, but that it was seen as important, very important, for a very narrow part of the economy. In other words, for farmers in particular areas. But it wasn’t a broad phenomenon,” Krikorian added.

“If you look at it from that perspective, you know, what’s — what’s wrong with it?”

There was more on the line than the American mythos and economy, however. For a president who viewed the U.S. as a Christian nation, “a shining city on a hill,” there was also the principle of grace, which in turn led Reagan to push even harder for the amnesty provision.

“He talked about, ‘Well, if we have to have a wall, let’s make sure it’s got wide gates to let in anyone who wants freedom.’ This kind of thing,” Krikorian said.

“Basically, you know, wipe the slate clean. And that has an appeal for Americans, too — it’s a sort of confess your sins and start over sort of thing. But in the future, we would make sure illegal immigrants were much less likely to be able to come.”

An Inch for a Mile – and Other Asinine Trades

Of course, Washington is a land of broken promises — and it was not long before the optimism of the Reagan administration was taken advantage of.

Just four years after the passage of the IRCA, Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy was leading lawmakers back to the well in an effort to goose the labor market with relaxed immigration quotas and expanded visa programs. The Immigration Act of 1990 would pass both chambers by an overwhelming margin, bringing hundreds of thousands of new faces to the states.

Flanking the substantial reform package, however, were efforts to undermine the “grand bargain,” scrapping IRCA provisions key to disincentivizing illegal immigration. Crafted by Kennedy and supported by moderate Republican allies like John McCain, the Employer Sanctions Repeal Act was introduced in 1990 and died the same year, making little headway.

When Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah set out to revive the bill a year later, conditions were far more favorable. But a roadblock from an unlikely place was enough to ensure the original conditions of the deal were maintained. Almost overnight, civil rights leaders rallied behind Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., to decry the bill as detrimental to the black workforce.

“Once they got their part of the deal, they were trying to welsh on it. The only reason they were stopped from doing that was because Coretta Scott King organized an open letter protest from other prominent black leaders,” Krikorian said. “Once she did that, it was all over.”

The victory was short-lived. While sanctions remained on the books, federal enforcement all but vanished. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of employers fined for I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification violations annually fell from 14,311 to 178.

It was the first of many bad-faith transactions. According to Krikorian, poor follow-up and relaxed enforcement went on to define the issue, as the illegal immigrant population skyrocketed in recent decades to 11 million, even 22 million by some estimates.

Off with the Band-Aid

A cyclical problem had taken root and, like a weed, matured in short order. Forced to once again mull over a compromise, the Bush and Obama administrations would witness untold division on immigration reform, with bipartisan agreements laughed off, lambasted and defeated from the wings. Republicans in particular had learned their lesson the hard way.

“You’ve got to fix the problem before you amnesty people,” Krikorian said. “And the problem is that the Democrats have finally figured, ‘OK, maybe we’ll do piecemeal amnesties,’ but still reject the idea that there should be any kind of trade-off or balance to these bills. So, I’m not sure what we tell them. I think they have to be humiliated and — I think they have to be humiliated and defeated again, maybe a couple of times.”

A real one-time bargain would need humble, compromising leaders on both sides of the aisle.

“If we’re going to have an amnesty — and we are at some point probably going to need to have one — it’s just not good in a democratic society to have 10, 11 million, 12 million people not formally part of the society. So, if we’re going to do it and it’s actually going to work, the way we need to do it is enforcement first with no trade-offs,” Krikorian said. “Then the deal is amnesty.”

“And I think amnesty should be simple. Rip off the Band-Aid, not a lot of hoops,” he added.

“A simple amnesty in exchange for wrapping up and bringing an end to this current wave of mass immigration.”

With nothing of the sort on the horizon, however, the quagmire may be in its adolescent phase, rather than end-of-life.

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Andrew J. Sciascia was the supervising editor of features at The Western Journal. Having joined up as a regular contributor of opinion in 2018, he went on to cover the Barrett confirmation and 2020 presidential election for the outlet, regularly co-hosting its video podcast, "WJ Live," as well.
Andrew J. Sciascia was the supervising editor of features at The Western Journal and regularly co-hosted the outlet's video podcast, "WJ Live."

Sciascia first joined up with The Western Journal as a regular contributor of opinion in 2018, before graduating with a degree in criminal justice and political science from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and worked briefly as a political operative with the Massachusetts Republican Party.

He covered the Barrett confirmation and 2020 presidential election for The Western Journal. His work has also appeared in The Daily Caller.