In the debate over immigration, "amnesty" has become something of a dirty word. Some opponents of the immigration bill being debated in the Senate assert that it would grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. Supporters claim it would do no such thing. Instead, they say, it lays out a road map by which illegal aliens can earn citizenship.
Perhaps I can shed some light. Two decades ago, while serving as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, I was in the thick of things as Congress debated the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The situation today bears uncanny similarities to what we went through then.
In the mid-80's, many members of Congress - pushed by the Democratic majority in the House and the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy - advocated amnesty for long-settled illegal immigrants. President Reagan considered it reasonable to adjust the status of what was then a relatively small population, and I supported his decision.
In exchange for allowing aliens to stay, he decided, border security and enforcement of immigration laws would be greatly strengthened - in particular, through sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants. If jobs were the attraction for illegal immigrants, then cutting off that option was crucial.
Beyond this, most illegal immigrants who could establish that they had resided in America continuously for five years would be granted temporary resident status, which could be upgraded to permanent residency after 18 months and, after another five years, to citizenship.
Note that this path to citizenship was not automatic. Indeed, the legislation stipulated several conditions: immigrants had to pay application fees, learn to speak English, understand American civics, pass a medical exam and register for military selective service. Those with convictions for a felony or three misdemeanors were ineligible. Sound familiar? These are pretty much the same provisions included in the new Senate proposal and cited by its supporters as proof that they have eschewed amnesty in favor of earned citizenship.
The difference is that President Reagan called this what it was: amnesty. Indeed, look up the term "amnesty" in Black's Law Dictionary, and you'll find it says, "the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for undocumented aliens already in the country."
Like the amnesty bill of 1986, the current Senate proposal would place those who have resided illegally in the United States on a path to citizenship, provided they meet a similar set of conditions and pay a fine and back taxes. The illegal immigrant does not go to the back of the line but gets immediate legalized status, while law-abiding applicants wait in their home countries for years to even get here. And that's the line that counts. In the end, slight differences in process do not change the overriding fact that the 1986 law and today's bill are both amnesties.
There is a practical problem as well: the 1986 act did not solve our illegal immigration problem. From the start, there was widespread document fraud by applicants. Unsurprisingly, the number of people applying for amnesty far exceeded projections. And there proved to be a failure of political will in enforcing new laws against employers.
After a six-month slowdown that followed passage of the legislation, illegal immigration returned to normal levels and continued unabated. Ultimately, some 2.7 million people were granted amnesty, and many who were not stayed anyway, forming the nucleus of today's unauthorized population.
So here we are, 20 years later, having much the same debate and being offered much the same deal in exchange for promises largely dependent on the will of future Congresses and presidents.
Will history repeat itself? I hope not. In the post-9/11 world, secure borders are vital. We have new tools - like biometric technology for identification, and cameras, sensors and satellites to monitor the border - that make enforcement and verification less onerous. And we can learn from the failed policies of the past.
President Bush and Congress would do better to start with securing the border and strengthening enforcement of existing immigration laws. We might also try improving on Ronald Reagan's idea of a pilot program for genuinely temporary workers.
The fair and sound policy is to give those who are here illegally the opportunity to correct their status by returning to their country of origin and getting in line with everyone else. This, along with serious enforcement and control of the illegal inflow at the border - a combination of incentives and disincentives - will significantly reduce over time our population of illegal immigrants.
America welcomes more immigrants than any other country. But in keeping open that door of opportunity, we also must uphold the rule of law and enhance a fair immigration process, as Ronald Reagan said, to "humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship."
Edwin Meese III is a fellow at The Heritage Foundation and holds its Ronald Reagan Chair in Public Policy. He served as attorney general under President Reagan.
First appeared in the New York Times