May 25, 2006
By Edwin Meese III
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
First appeared in the New York Times
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.
Edwin Meese III
Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 200,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2013, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973