Lessons learned on immigration

“We will ensure that this is a successful permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited.” — the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

I’ve heard this sales pitch before. I first heard it during the immigration reform debate in the early 1980s, when we had a 3 million-person problem. Back then, I was persuaded that legalization was the answer. Today, some members are pushing legalization again with the lure that their solution is distinct and dependable. I appreciate the effort of this group and hope its final product delivers so that the issue doesn’t have to be revisited. 

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So, what can we all learn from the 1986 law so we don’t hear this sales pitch again? 

The 1986 bill was supposed to be a three-legged stool — control of illegal immigration, a legalization program and reform of legal immigration. 

It included a legalization program for two categories of people: one for individuals who have been present in the U.S. since 1982 and the other for farm workers who had worked in agriculture for at least 90 days prior to enactment. 

There were also enforcement provisions. For the first time ever, it became illegal to knowingly hire or employ someone here illegally. Penalties were set to deter the hiring of people who were illegally in the country. 

The bill specifically noted that “one essential element of immigration control is an increase in the border patrol and other inspection and enforcement activities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in order to prevent and deter the illegal entry of aliens into the United States and the violation of the terms of their entry.” 

Congress, the public and the president did not envision, nor did they want, another amnesty debate. The American people were told that this would be a one-time shot. The incentive to buy in to the argument was a promise of enforcement. 

At the time, the author of the 1986 bill said, “If legalization should occur before more effective enforcement is available, the illegal population is only going to grow very swiftly again, and that will create pressures for additional legalization. And it will not be a one-time-only legalization; it will be a continuing series.”

Despite the language in the bill and the intention of those of us in Congress, the enforcement never came, millions of people were legalized and a swell of illegal immigrants came or stayed unlawfully to wait for the amnesty sequel.  

A lesson can be learned to correct this problem for future generations. Today, people in foreign lands want to be a part of this great nation. We should feel privileged that people love our country and want to become Americans. 

What President Reagan said when major legislation was enacted in 1986 remains relevant today: “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.” 

To be successful with immigration policy this time around, we first need enforcement of the laws already on the books. That means not turning a blind eye to sanctuary cities, and finally implementing the law calling for an entry and exit system to track foreign nationals. We need the administration to perform its constitutional duty of faithfully executing the laws and securing the border. We also need E-Verify to be used by all businesses in America to make certain to the greatest extent possible that they have a legal workforce.

And, just as importantly, we need reform of legal immigration policies so that both high- and low-skilled workers have an avenue to enter and live in the U.S. 

The path we take in this debate will shape our country for years to come. We can find a solution while learning from the mistakes of the past, and ensuring that future generations don’t have to revisit this problem down the road. 

We are a nation defined and strengthened by both immigrants and the rule of law. Immigration reform must honor both of these traditions in order to be successful.

Grassley is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.