Obama Immigration Reform: The Past Can Provide the Answer


Illegal immigration is a relatively new issue in American politics. Except for Native Americans, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants. The United States has been called a “melting pot” and more recently a “salad bowl.” So why is illegal immigration an issue and what can we learn from our past efforts; success or failure, to help us resolve the issue today.   

The first illegal immigrants were actually slaves smuggled into the country after the slave trade was declared illegal in 1808. However, it wasn’t until 1875 that the U.S. established any controls. First banned were convicts and prostitutes. The ban was expanded in 1882 with the addition of Chinese, paupers, criminals, and the mentally ill

Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, people entered the U.S. illegally. Even though entry though such ports of entry as Ellis Island was relatively easy, people from Mexico, China, and other countries still crossed both the southern and northern borders. In the late 1920’s it was estimated there were over 17,000 Chinese and one million Mexicans living illegally in the U.S. But outside of rejection at legal ports of entry, there was no enforcement.

It appears the first attempt at resolving the illegal immigration problem was the Bracero Program.  This program, in place from 1943 to 1964, allowed five million temporary immigrants to cross the U.S. / Mexico border to work in agriculture and on the railroads. When the program expired, illegal crossings did not stop. The issue was ignored by U.S. officials until 1986.  

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act allowed three million immigrants who were in this country illegally to remain under certain conditions. The key selling point to passing this legislation was that by granting amnesty, the flow of illegal immigrants will slow. But did it? According to research, the flow of illegal border crossings increased immediately after the passage of the act and during the stipulated application period. Following the expiration of the application period, there was a brief decrease due to fear of apprehension. A study of applications granted showed excessive fraud, as high as 73 percent for Legally Authorized Workers. Given that current estimates generally accept there are approximately 12 million undocumented people living in the U.S., it can be said with confidence, amnesty did not reduce illegal immigration as expected.

Other tweaks have been made. In 1996, the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act provided for improvements in border security, allowed undocumented aliens without criminal records to apply for permanent status, and added reforms to the processing of legal applications. In 2000, the Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act provided a means for those who entered legally but violated terms of their visa to apply to remain.  

The past I believe has shown us illegal immigration cannot be overlooked. The Bracero Program was the predecessor of the H2-A and H2B Visa programs. As highlighted above, the late 1990’s and last decade saw attempts to both tighten border security and improve processing of legal applications. In two previous PolicyMic articles I outlined changes to visa processing and recommended other reforms.

As we have seen from the debate over the DREAM Act and President Obama’s recent directive preventing deportation of children brought into the country illegally by their parents, previous attempts to permanently resolve the issue of illegal immigration apparently have not worked. We need to look at these past policies, the successes and failures, along with new recommendations. We need to lose the rhetoric and fix the problem. In this case, the past can show us the way.