Prepared Floor Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee
Lessons from 1986 Immigration Reform
Monday, February 4, 2013
As we look forward to a debate this year about immigration reform, I want to share my thoughts and my past experiences on this issue. I particularly want to share my personal experience from the 1980s amnesty law and how we can learn from that debate.
But, before I dive into this history, I want to commend the many senators that are working together to forge a consensus and produce a product on this terribly difficult issue. I commend them for sitting down and agreeing to a set of principles. As Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, I expect to play a role in brokering an even broader consensus with additional members.
I’ve read the bipartisan framework for immigration reform that this group has written. And, the one thing that struck me is the sentence in the preamble. It 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 group understands that we need a long-term solution to this problem. We need a serious fix so that future generations don’t have to deal with 11 or 15 or 30 million people who are here illegally. That sentence is the most important part of that document, and we must not lose sight of that goal.
But, we need to learn from our previous mistakes so that we truly don’t have to revisit the problem. So, let’s discuss the 1986 amnesty under President Reagan.
In 1980, President Reagan campaigned on a promise that he would work to reform our immigration laws and legalize foreign workers in the U.S. The President’s policies were further shaped by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy that was created in 1978 under President Carter. President Reagan signed a bill into law on November 6, 1986. This law is known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA.
The process to finalize a bill was long and arduous. It took years. In 1981, when I was a freshman Senator, I joined the Judiciary Committee, and I was a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Back then, subcommittees did real work. We sat down and wrote the legislation. We had 100 hours of hearings and 300 witnesses before we marked up a bill in May 1982.
Senator Simpson chaired the subcommittee, and other members included Senators Thurmond, Kennedy and DeConcini. Senator Thurmond was called to the White House and Senator DeConcini had just been hospitalized, so Senator Simpson, Senator Kennedy and I brought up amendments and voted on them. Senator Kennedy, on that day, said “immigration reform is one of the most complicated and difficult issues; it involves human beings, it involves families, it involves loved ones, children, and the separation of those individuals.” His words would still resonate today.
In 1982, I told my colleagues on the Judiciary Committee that I wanted to do the right thing for the United States. I said, “The real issue here is what is best for United States citizens. In trying to maintain that perspective, I have come to the conclusion through the course of attending many hearings on this issue, that increased border and interior enforcement along with employer sanctions and a secure worker eligibility identity system is necessary to regain control of our borders.” This is a philosophy that continues to guide me today.
But, I expressed my concern with the legalization component at the time. I echoed the recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration. That commission said a legalization should 1) be consistent with U.S. interests; and 2) the program should not encourage further undocumented migration. The Commission believed that a legalization program should not begin until new enforcement measures have been instituted. The commission knew then – as I did and as I know now – that “without more effective enforcement, legalization could serve as a stimulus to further illegal entry.” Those are the words of the Commission. You see, I didn’t think permanent residency should be granted until we had a worker eligibility system. I offered an amendment on that point in 1982, but it failed.
The Judiciary Committee and the full Senate passed a bill in 1982, but it didn’t pass the House of Representatives. We tried again in the next Congress. The Senate passed a bill in 1983, and the House followed in 1984. We convened a conference committee in 1984, but Walter Mondale came out opposed. So, we adjourned for the elections and failed to finalize a bill that year. We returned in 1985 to pass our bill again. That year, Senator Simpson included a provision to trigger the amnesty program only after enforcement measures to curtail illegal immigration were in place.
Congress passed a final bill in November 1986. The vote in the Senate was 63-24 and the House vote was 238-173.
Over the years, many members offered amendments to water down the enforcement provisions in the Immigration Reform and Control Act. There was a lot of opposition to employer sanctions, especially by Senator Kennedy. He wanted – in his words – “criminal penalties to be based only upon injunctive finding of pattern or practice.” He tried to sunset the employer sanctions. Senator Kennedy also fought hard to move the legalization cut-off date from 1980 to 1982 so that more people could benefit from the amnesty.
The 1986 bill was supposed to be a 3-legged stool – control of illegal immigration, a legalization program, and reform of legal immigration. We authorized $422 million to carry out the requirements of the bill, and created a special fund for states to reimburse their costs.
The 1986 bill included a legalization program for two categories of people: one for individuals who have been present in the U.S. since 1982 and the second for farm workers who had worked in agriculture for at least 90 days prior to enactment. A total of 2.7 million people were given amnesty.
We also had enforcement. For the first time ever, we made it illegal to knowingly hire or employ someone here illegally. We set penalties to deter the hiring of people here illegally. We wrote in the bill 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.”
So, let me again repeat one of the principles that the group of 8 included in their framework. “We will ensure that this is a successful permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited.”
Unfortunately, the same principles from 1986 are being discussed today. Legalize now, enforce later. But, it’s clear that philosophy doesn’t work. Proponents of amnesty today argue that we didn’t get it right in 1986. I agree that the enforcement mechanisms in 1986 could have been stronger. That’s why they need to be strong this time around.
But, I’m already concerned that some will attempt to water down the principles that have been put forth on enforcement measures. President Obama doesn’t seem to favor triggers. The senior Senator from New York said – just last week — that border security wasn’t going to stop legalization. In his words, he said, “We’re not using border security as an excuse or block to the path of citizenship.” Advocacy groups are already talking about ensuring that a border security commission doesn’t stand in the way or have veto authority over a legalization program.
One particular theme from 1986 is still shining through today-that is the notion that this is a one-time program. Some say we need to legalize the millions of people who are already on U.S. soil. They say we need to bring them out of the shadows, know who is here, and give them a chance at U.S. citizenship. They imply this would be a one-time deal because we’d get it right this time.
But, in the 1980s, Senator Simpson was convinced that what we did then would be a permanent solution to our immigration problems. He stated, “We are attempting to assure that this is a one-time only program…The purpose of legalization is not to award or reward or include the largest number of persons available. It is to bring forward into a legal status those most deeply entrenched in a society they would be least likely to return home to when the job opportunities no longer are available.”
Senator Simpson said that a one-time amnesty would prevent us from a continuing series of amnesties. He stated that, “The major reason for legalization is to eliminate an illegal sub class within our society. This is the legislation that will eliminate this exploitable group. Some people like to say that they hope it will clean the slate; that is what we are trying to do is clean the slate.”
He also said, “The American people, in my mind, will never accept a legalization program unless they can be assured this is a one-shot deal and that this is it, this is a one-time occurrence. And the policymakers in this country are not going to allow it to happen again and will prevent the situation which gave rise to it.”
INS Commissioner at the time, Alan Nelson, told the committee that the legalization program was “realistic and humane” and said, “It is clear that this is meant to be a one-time proposal, and not intended to recur.”
In 1986, the committee report said that “the solution lies in legalizing the status of aliens who have been present in the United States for several years, recognizing that past failures to enforce the immigration laws have allowed them to enter and to settle here.”
Also, according to the report, the Committee “strongly believes that a one time legalization program is a necessary part of an effective enforcement program and that a generous program is an essential part of any immigration reform legislation.”
In 1986, the Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. At the time, President Reagan hailed it as the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws since 1952. He stated that the legislation was a major step toward meeting the challenge to our sovereignty while at the same time preserving and enhancing the nation’s heritage of legal immigration.
What Congress, the public, and the President did not envision, or did not want, was 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.
In 1985, Senator Simpson 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.”
Many believed that employer sanctions were the only way to “curtail” illegal immigration. One committee report stated that, “Unless employer sanctions are enacted, the Committee is concerned that the situation will continue to worsen.”
In 1985, Senator Metzenbaum said, “When push comes to shove, there is only one realistic way that you can stop illegal immigration into this country, and that is by making it illegal and being tough enough that illegal immigrants cannot work in this country.”
Knowing what we know now, an immigration reform bill must include tough enforcement measures. We must stop the flow at the border. We must expand and enhance legal avenues so that people are not coming here illegally. We must have a strong employment verification program.
Unfortunately, we aren’t enforcing the laws we have on the books today. The American people don’t trust that we will enforce these laws in the future. We provided amnesty overnight in 1986 and didn’t fulfill the other parts of the equation. Border security, enforcement measures, and legal immigration reform need to be the first things on our agenda in 2013.
I chose to talk about this topic today because I believe we can learn from the past. We can learn from our mistakes. This isn’t just about our history. It’s about our future. 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.
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.
Let me end by echoing the words of President Reagan: “Distance has not discouraged illegal immigration to the United States from all around the globe. The problem of illegal immigration should not, therefore, be seen as a problem between the United States and its neighbors. Our objective is only to establish a reasonable, fair, orderly, and secure system of immigration into this country and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people. 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.”
My hope is that we will preserve the value of American citizenship, as President Reagan said. The path we take today will shape our country for years to come. It’s my hope that we can find a solution while learning from our mistakes, and ensuring that future generations don’t have to revisit this problem down the road.
Thank you, and I yield back my time.
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