Robert Polner, Staff Writer


June 10, 2004

Ronald Reagan, immigrants' hero?


Not exactly, but then, not entirely off the mark, either, say those familiar with his record.


Given the current era of detention and deportation, of undocumented aliens numbering upward of 6 million and of hundreds of thousands more turned back at the Mexican border every year, even staunch critics of the Reagan years are viewing his record in a better light.


It was under Reagan that Congress passed an unparalleled amnesty for about 3 million immigrants who had been living illegally in the United States for at least five years. There has not been anything like it since.


Those who fit the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act could get green cards at one of the more than 120 storefronts hurriedly set up to handle a flood of applications, followed by citizenship after another five years.


"It was a broad stroke," said William Frey, a population expert at the Brookings Institution, "a practical way of dealing with the question of illegal immigration in this country."


What complicates Reagan's record on immigration was the landmark law's provision holding employers culpable for hiring immigrants who were ineligible for green cards. Some critics say the amnesty should have been open-ended, while others say lax enforcement only fueled the numbers of undocumented workers.


Stuart Anderson, former executive associate commissioner for policy at the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George W. Bush, faults the law for failing to widen avenues for people to move to the United States legally to work and says the huge tide of illegal immigration was not stemmed as hoped.


He added that Bush's recent proposal to let employers sponsor the U.S. stays of immigrants for two consecutive three-year stretches was in some ways an attempt to pick up where Reagan left off.


Whatever the impact of the Reagan-era law, the late president's support for the act made supporting immigration more palatable for conservatives in his party, Anderson said.


Its enactment, some say, also marked a break in the usual stalemate.


The change was temporary. To this day pro-business Republicans tend to oppose amnesty on grounds that it would sanction a form of illegality, while labor-aligned Democrats, professing concern about workers already here, oppose making it easier for immigrants to displace U.S. workers at perhaps lower wages, at least not without amnesty thrown in for those already here.


In addition, the post-9/11 "crackdown climate," said Paul Virtue, who was Immigration and Naturalization general counsel under former President Bill Clinton, suggests there may be no agreement for quite some time.


"At least with the 1986 act, there was a plan. Whether it achieved its objectives or not - and I would have to say it didn't - at least there was a plan and an effort made to see it through," Virtue said.

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