Immigration reform and Ronald Reagan — this time, let’s trust but verify

In a post called “Immigration — what would Reagan do and should it matter?” I analyzed various claims by Peter Robinson about how Ronald Reagan would view the current immigration reform debate. I agree with most of Peter’s claims on this subject. However, I blamed Reagan in part for the current immigration mess, arguing that the 1986 immigration reform act, which he supported, was a predictable failure. I wrote:

Reagan’s record on immigration is a poor one. He signed legislation in 1986 that granted amnesty to millions of illegal aliens but also included provisions to prevent future illegal immigration. Predictably, the grant of amnesty “succeeded” while the preventative measures turned out to be a joke.

Peter responded on Ricochet, his excellent blog. He agreed that the 1986 act turned out badly, but argued that this was not predictable. Here is part of what he said (you should read the whole thing):

When Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act back in 1986, he had no reason to suppose that only the “reform” and not the “control” provisions would ever be put into effect. The legislation was tightly drawn. And the new enforcement provisions that it mandated were aggressive–remarkably so, I thought when I looked them over. Perhaps most notably, the legislation required employers throughout the country to verify their workers’ legal status, thus supplementing the single line at the border with a defense in depth.
The legislation provided the funding for these new provisions. And it had broad, bipartisan support–for that matter, it was based on the findings of a commission on immigration that Jimmy Carter had established and that Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, had chaired. Attorney General at the time, Ed Meese, with whom I discussed all this last month, saw no reason to suppose the legislation wouldn’t be put into effect. Even Pete Wilson, then in the Senate, and with whom I also spoke about all this last month, voted “aye.”

At Peter’s invitation, I have replied to his response. My reply, which should soon be up on Richochet, is as follows:

It’s always preferable to agree, rather than disagree, with Peter Robinson. So I’m happy to see that we agree as to what position Ronald Reagan would take today regarding immigration reform. We both think Reagan would insist that the federal government enforce existing immigration laws before enacting new statutes that grant amnesty. Accordingly, we agree that Reagan would have opposed President Bush’s 2006 proposed comprehensive immigration reform proposal.
Peter and I also agree that the 1986 immigration reform law that Reagan signed into law was a failure. The “liberal” part of it succeeded; millions of illegal immigrants received amnesty. However, the “conservative” part failed; the provisions designed to prevent future illegal immigration were not enforced.
Where Peter and I disagree is on the question of whether, or to what extent, this failure was predictable. I think it was. However, in fairness to Peter, and to Reagan, I admit that things typically seem predictable after they occur.
Yet, it’s the lessons I learned from Reagan and some of the intellectuals associated with him that make the failure of the 1986 law seem so unsurprising. One such lesson is that the government is very good at conferring status, privileges, and benefits but not very good at administering programs.
Earlier this week, I read that one of the agencies involved in the Gulf Coast disaster planning approved a plan that includes details for protecting the Gulf’s walrus population and instructions for contacting a scientist who has been dead for five years. This kind of story was the staple of many a Reagan speech on “the rubber chicken circuit” during the 1960s and 1970s. Why, then, was he confident that the government would effectively enforce the immigration laws?
Such confidence seems all the more misplaced one when considers that, unlike disaster planning, immigration enforcement has an ideological dimension. It’s difficult enough for the government to administer complex programs when acting in good faith. When liberal bureaucrats have ideological reservations about what they are asked to do, as I believe was the case with the 1986 legislation, the prospects for success are bleak.
Perhaps the Reagan administration in its prime could have ridden herd over the immigration bureaucracy. But the administration was on its way out when the time came to enforce the 1986 act. And it was predictable that a successor administration would indulge in benign neglect or worse.
Peter notes that the 1986 legislation was “tightly drawn” and adequately funded. But from Reagan and the Reaganites I learned to be skeptical of claims that tightly drawn laws and lots of funding will affect the world in the ways they are intended to (the law of unintended consequences, and all that). Why wasn’t there more such skepticism when it came to this law? My guess is that the admirable humanitarian side of Reagan got the better of the Reagan conservative in this instance.
Peter cites the portion of the 1986 law that required employers to verify their workers’ legal status. This portion of the law ran counter to both the desire of corporate America to hire whom it pleased without risking penalties and the sensibilities of liberal America, which sympathized profoundly with illegal aliens who wanted to work. As such, it was a long shot, at best. In 1986, as a practitioner of both employment law and (to a slight extent) immigration law, I heard plenty of skepticism from employers about whether employer sanctions would become an entrenched part of the true legal landscape. That skepticism was well-founded.
I agree with Peter about the enduring relevance of Reagan. But when it comes to immigration reform, I believe that underlying Reaganite theories about the limits of government are a better guide than his 1986 position on the specific issue at hand.
In any event, the key point is that, this time around, Reagan’s position would be a very Reaganite one — “trust but verifiy.”

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