Karl Rove's recollection of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act ("Immigration Reform and the Hispanic Vote," op-ed, June 6) is, shall we say, highly selective. That law, he writes, "essentially told those here illegally that if they had arrived in the U.S. prior to 1982 and wanted to become citizens, simply raise your right hand." He asserts that the Gang of Eight bill is different because it "has plenty of penalties and hurdles for those here illegally who seek citizenship."
Well, I was there in '86. I read that bill carefully. (We did that back then.) And I can tell you that Mr. Rove's blithe description of the bill is way off the mark.
The 1986 act didn't turn illegal immigrants into citizens on the spot. It granted temporary resident status only to those who could prove they had resided continuously in America for five years. After 18 months, their status could be upgraded to permanent residency, and only after another five years could they become U.S. citizens.
But advancement to citizenship was not automatic. Immigrants had to satisfy various requirements along the way. They 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.
The '86 reform bill also had supposedly "rigorous" border security and immigration law enforcement provisions. So how did that pan out? On the day Reagan signed "comprehensive" reform into law, only one thing changed: Millions of unlawful immigrants gained "legal" status. The promised crackdowns on security and enforcement never happened. Only amnesty prevailed.
Since the '86 amnesty, the number of illegal immigrants has quadrupled. 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.
On legislation as important as this, lawmakers must take the time to read the bill, not rely on others' characterizations of what it says. We can't afford to have Congress "pass the bill to find out what's in it."
-Edwin Meese III is a Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus.
First appeared in The Wall Street Journal