Why Immigrants Were Given Legal Status by Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was signed into law by Ronald Reagan and allowed illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before 1982 to be legalized. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "A New Immigration Policy” on August 3, 1981, as the Reagan administration planned to announce what would become the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. In light of recent news involving the smuggling of immigrants into the U.S., Newsweek is republishing the story.

Descendants of immigrants themselves, Americans have always been of two minds about immigration: the desire to pull up the ladder tugs against the Statue of Liberty's proud exhortation, "Give me your tired, your poor.…" At the moment, the national mood seems to be on the side of retrenchment—in part because of the recent influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees. A Roper poll last year found nine out of 10 people in favor of an end to illegal immigration, and eight of 10 wanting to reduce the number of legal immigrants. After the confusion of the Carter years, a new policy seems to be an urgent priority—and this week, the Reagan administration plans to announce the first major overhaul of immigration rules since 1965. The overhaul is the outcome of protracted deliberations and negotiations, beginning in 1978 with a blue-ribbon Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, headed by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame University, and ending with the recommendations of a Cabinet-level task force led by Attorney General William French Smith. The task force's findings were supposed to be revealed last week, but were withdrawn for more fine tuning. Still, the administration's major themes remain unaltered: in a plan that already is producing odd political alignments, the White House would confer eventual legal status on millions of aliens now considered illegals, create a "guest worker" program for Mexicans that some critics are calling "institutionalized serfdom"—and for the first time, penalize employers who break the rules.

The illegal aliens present the thorniest problem. There are now as many as 6 million of them living in the United States, and their ranks swell by 250,000 to 500,000 a year. They provide a vital source of labor for the agricultural, manufacturing and restaurant industries in states where they settle in numbers, yet their status is shadowy—never quite tolerated, never quite rejected. The administration proposes to deal with illegal aliens in two ways. Illegals with 10 years' continuous residency could become eligible immediately for permanent-resident status. Others would become eligible by degrees, providing they had immigrated before January 1, 1981. The purpose of spacing out the granting of permanent-resident status, officials say, is to soften its demographic and financial impact.

Penalties: The plan also calls for choking off further illegal immigration. Border patrols would be increased, and more money would be made available to the hard pressed Immigration and Naturalization Service. Employers who "knowingly and willfully" hire illegal aliens would be fined, and even enjoined if they persisted in the practice. There is a big pitfall in the proposal, however: the documentation workers would need is easily forged. "You can buy a social-security card for less than $5 at flea markets," says one Houston builder. Yet the alternative—some sort of tamperproof card that could become the foundation of a national identification system—is opposed by civil libertarians, making them strange allies of employers who enjoy the current freedom to hire illegals.

The proposed guest-worker program is just as controversial. During a two-year experimental period, 50,000 Mexicans a year would be issued temporary visas to work in areas where their skills were in demand. Mexican officials and some employers criticize the proposal for not bringing in enough workers, while labor and civil-rights groups say that it will bring in too many—and that its real purpose is to provide cheap labor and deflate wage levels. Some union officials also see it as an attempt to cripple organizing efforts: "Reagan is telling everyone, "Go ahead…rip them off. If they complain, we'll send them home'," says Alfredo De Avila of the Texas Farmworkers Union.

Higher Ceiling: Changes are also proposed for legal immigrants and refugees. The government currently allows 270,000 immigrants a year to settle in the United States, not counting immediate relatives of American citizens, who enter under another category. The new plan would raise the ceiling to 310,000, by adding to the quotas for Canadians and Mexicans—"a partial alternative to illegal immigration," according to a task-force memo. Refugees would continue to be admitted—the administration expects about 150,000 in the next fiscal year—but episodes such as the Cuban boat brigade and the Haitian migration would be discouraged. Moreover, the administration wants emergency authority to ban travel by American citizens and vessels to certain countries, such as Cuba, for the purpose of picking up refugees. It would also like the Coast Guard to be allowed to interdict on the high seas any foreign-flag vessels suspected of ferrying illegal immigrants into the United States.

Finally, the plan would make it easier to deport illegals who do slip through the net, by denying them appeals to the Federal courts. In all the package would cost about $415 million, of which $180 million would be recovered through fees. Anyway, with immigration policy, money is not the issue; the real question is how far the United States can retrench on a historic promise without losing its identity.