Immigration Reform 2013: Key Lessons From the Last Time We Tried This in 1986


As President Obama and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are beginning to take their first steps toward rewriting the nation’s immigration laws, opponents warn that they are repeating the mistakes of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

Currently, similar principles as the 1986 reform package are being discussed. Legalize now, enforce later ... but that philosophy did not work. In 1986 the Senate issued amnesty overnight and did not fulfill the other side of the reform. The path to citizenship in 2013 would be more involved than the 1986 reform that allowed for full amnesty. Both reforms share common goals: control of illegal immigration, a legalization program, and reform of legal immigration.

One particular theme from 1986 that continues to surface today is the impression that this is a one-time program. Some say we need to legalize the millions of people who are already in the United States. They say we need to bring them out of hiding, know who is here, and give them an opportunity to gain formal citizenship. The Senate implies this would be a one-time deal because they would get it right this time. These are the same beliefs that were held true in 1986.  After President Ronald Regan signed the IRCA in 1986, he confidently predicted "Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship."

The bipartisan framework for immigration reform for 2013 states, "We will ensure that this is a successful permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited." In other words, the Senate understands that America needs a long-term solution to the immigration problem, so that future generations don’t have to deal with upward of 11 million illegal immigrants.

Often people like to use the word undocumented immigrants instead of "illegal immigrants." Why don’t we just call a spade a spade? Every year, America allows over 675,000 permanent immigrants into the country. Is that not enough? Should America turn a blind eye as 11 million illegal immigrants are granted the opportunity to receive full citizenship into a country they broke the law to enter? Is rewarding that type of behavior the right answer? Perhaps America should implements a reward act that would grant convicted felons their freedom, in hopes to fix the judicial system.

In February Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) spoke to the Senate and said, "We must make sure that the decisions we make with regard to our immigration policies follow our long-standing ideals. We want to welcome new Americans, but we need to live by the rules we've set. We cannot let our welcome mat be trampled on or our system of laws be undermined." The law must serve as more than a scare tactic, but never will if consequences are not enforced. Allowing 11 million illegal immigrants legal status with no consequences will only be adding oxygen to the boarder control fire.

The key to success in immigration reform is enforcement. Words hold little weight if they are not backed by action. The legalization process should not take place until new enforcement measures have been set. The 1986 promise of enforcing the law was broken, and the 2013 promises will be broken as well if the Senate does not learn a lesson from the past.