On Selective Memory And Pretending To Care About Illegal Immigration

In immigration policy circles, there’s one thing no one wants to repeat: 1986. Anti-immigration groups call the now-infamous Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) “the Reagan amnesty,” but it doesn’t matter what side you’re on, one thing is clear: IRCA failed to stop illegal immigration. Anti-immigration advocates repeat the line — “Regan’s amnesty failed” (to end illegal immigration) — so often that you’d think that someone actually disagrees.

But no one ever thought that the amnesty would end illegal immigration. They thought that amnesty would eliminate the current black market; border enforcement would stop illegal entries; and sanctions on employers would keep immigrants home. Since this formula failed to stop illegal immigration, anti-immigration groups always compare any bill that comes out against 1986. It’s the “remember the Alamo” cry for immigration hawks.

So when the bipartisan Senate list of immigration principles came out last month, the biggest “Never-Again” voice, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, fired off the comparison immediately and repeatedly. He begins his argument by saying, “let’s also stipulate, for the sake of argument, that the ‘comprehensive’ approach is the right one — a deal encompassing legalization for most illegal aliens plus huge increases in future immigration, in exchange for promises of future enforcement. The logic of this approach is the same as that of the 1986 immigration law.”

But it’s clearly not the same logic. Although nothing in the principles stipulates the exact amount of immigration, they do state, “We recognize that to prevent future waves of illegal immigration a humane and effective system needs to be created for these immigrant workers to enter the country and find employment without seeking the aid of human traffickers or drug cartels.” This was not any part of the 1986 plan — in fact, the authors explicitly argued that the proposal would keep legal immigration levels static, and they did.

In fact, Congress also rejected a robust temporary worker visa, and the compromise — the totally inadequate, heavily regulated H-2A program where workers are forbidden from leaving their employers — can, in no way, be said to comprise “huge increases in future immigration.” This proposal would eliminate illegal immigration, and what’s more, Krikorian has admitted as much. He said on his blog of the Senate bill, “in other words, no one would have to immigrate illegally because every person in the world who wanted to come here would be able to do so.”

Naturally, neither the principles nor any other proposal would allow “every person in the world who wanted to come,” but it would allow families of U.S. legal residents and workers who could get jobs come. But concession leads to a clear conclusion. On the one hand, Krikorian is willing to argue a deal that includes large future flows is just like 1986 — and will in his words, embed “millions of new illegal immigrants” — because he knows that illegal immigration is what most people are concerned with.

Yet at the same time, he knows that such a proposal would fix illegal immigration. As he admits, “you just legalize the whole thing and the issue goes away.” In Krikorian’s mind, “the real problem is ‘Too Much Immigration,’” not “Too Much Lawbreaking.” So Krikorian shrieks about “amnesty” and illegal immigration, but he doesn’t really care about those things. He just wants fewer immigrants by any means necessary. This is why he’ll say “Stick to Enforcement First,” as if he’d actually support legalization or more legal immigration “second.”

Krikorian and his Federation for American Immigration Reform/NumbersUSA anti-population growth crowd admittedly aren’t that interested in illegal immigration, but they use it as a nice rhetorical tool to get conservatives on their anti-legal immigration side. For this reason, they will accuse anything of being “1986 all over again,” even when they know it’s not.