My friend and colleague Ed Meese is second to no one in his admiration for Ronald Reagan. But the man who served the late president as the nation’s 75th attorney general will readily admit it was a serious mistake for Reagan to accept the compromise at the heart of the 1986 immigration “reform” bill and sign it into law.
Why? Because that piece of legislation turned out to be a big amnesty bill. No, it wasn’t advertised that way. It was sold as “border security in exchange for amnesty.” Except that the promised border security never materialized. “Amnesty first, border security second” may have sounded good in theory, but it worked out to be nothing but amnesty.
It also was presented as a “one time only” deal. Yet here we are again.
The least that today’s lawmakers could do is learn from this experience. Unfortunately, not enough of them have. Politicians from both sides of the aisle insist that the latest immigration reform isn’t amnesty. Oh, no. It would merely give legal residency to the 11 million people who are here illegally. Excuse me, but how is that not amnesty?
Whatever they insist on calling it, it’s the wrong policy. And it has a very predictable effect.
“Since the ’86 amnesty, the number of illegal immigrants has quadrupled,” Meese recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “That should teach Congress a very important lesson: Amnesty ‘bends’ the rule of law. And bending the rule of law to reach a ‘comprehensive’ deal winds up provoking wholesale breaking of the law. Ultimately, it encourages millions more to risk entering the country illegally in the hope that one day they, too, might receive amnesty.”
This also has the effect of undermining the rule of law, one of the very features that makes the United States so attractive to so many immigrants in the first place. What does granting amnesty tell the more than 4.4 million people now waiting to immigrate to the U.S. lawfully? Some of them have been in the queue for two decades. Who could blame them for feeling like fools for playing by the rules if fence-jumpers are given a clean slate?
If lawmakers who support the current immigration bill really want to convince us that it isn’t amnesty, maybe they can explain why the border-security elements are back-loaded. “Many of the supposed requirements, such as border fencing and thousands of new Border Patrol agents, wouldn't be implemented for years, if at all,” James Carafano and Derrick Morgan of the Heritage Foundation write in a recent op-ed. “As with current immigration laws, some provisions could be ignored or waived by the Department of Homeland Security.”
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