Election Day 2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary almost to the day of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the Reagan-era amnesty-for-reform bargain which was signed into law on November 6, 1986. Given that Trump launched his campaign on an anti-illegal immigrants platform, that he successfully used his GOP rival’s support for amnesty as a wedge issue in the primary, and that the question of how to deal with immigration continues to be a major divide between pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers, you’d have thought this anniversary would provide an irresistible opportunity to the media.
And you’d be wrong. There was almost no coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or other major press outlets. Partly, this reflects the increasing horse-race-obsessed nature of our coverage. (Will anyone remember on Wednesday pieces written on Sunday about polls last week?) But this also reflects the ongoing status of IRCA as one of the most under-discussed, though informative and important, historical examples in politics today.
It’s not hard to see why. The 1986 Act continues to be the template for comprehensive immigration reform of the sort that enjoys almost universal support from the media. And yet it failed. It failed by almost any measure. Within a year of passage, illegal crossings were back up to pre-passage rates. The workplace enforcement provisions never provided the kind of long-term deterrence they were supposed to (rather, their principle consequence was stimulating the market for identity theft and fraudulent documents.) On the other side of the equation, the amnesty was implemented in a crude, often callous, way sadly typical of our blue model border agencies. Above all, evidence of its failure can be seen in the current generation of illegal immigrants: whether you see this as a shameful problem keeping 13 million people in the shadows, or as evidence of a massive law enforcement failure (or both at once, as many do), this was the exact problem the ’86 bill was sold as preventing.
This wasn’t the first law in American history to fail to solve the problem at which it was aimed. But when the elites of both parties and the media keep pushing the same basic idea while pooh-poohing the last failure, it raises the suspicion that they didn’t mind the way things developed that much after all. And the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act and the 2013 Gang of Eight bill were the same basic compromise, with tweaks and a “trust us, this time we mean it.” Only, many people don’t. (The continuing delays in implementing E-Varify—now approaching its third decade of gestation—doesn’t help, either.) And ’86-style reform continues to be the template favored by the Clinton campaign today.
Though IRCA failed, it was the product of serious and protracted negotiations, stretching over half a decade and entailing serious and innovative policy studies in the executive branch, legislature, and private groups. (It had some unexpected roots, including efforts by the NAACP and the Carter Administration to address the problem in the last years of the ’70s.) It involved seemingly sensible trade-offs, and real compromises. Most of all, the initiative’s authors didn’t have the example of history to know it wouldn’t work. We do.
The date on which the 1986 Act was signed tells us something: the bill was signed right after midterm elections, which were on November 4 that year. In immigration negotiations, everyone involved must inevitably make sacrifices on issues that their supporters care about deeply. It’s not a coincidence to see that the 1990 Immigration Act (which reformed legal immigration, and so was the complement to the 1996 Act) also passed just after a midterm. In an ideal world, such compromises would be a triumph of representative democracy. But when one side—here the restrictionists—starts to think that this is less a matter of painful but productive compromises and more a game of “heads you win, tails I lose”, it’s easy for this to lead to a narrative of elite betrayal. And that is, as we’re seeing, dangerous.
Which brings us up to the present. I suspect—and polls suggest—that Trump supporters are about to have a rough encounter with the increasing political power of the New Great Wave immigrants. The vast majority of these were legal immigrants, not amnesty recipients, and all who are voting are citizens: failing to reckon with their political clout was foolish and, at least on the candidate’s part, iniquitous. At the same time, a dangerous idea is circulating on the Left and center-right now: that the Trumpians are a fixed share of the pie—that this is as big as the restrictionist or Jacksonian vote gets.
On the contrary, if a 1986 amnesty-for-enforcement deal were to be repeated and to fail again, with legalization for 13 million people this time (as opposed to 3 million last time) followed by no decline in or even a surge in illegal immigration as people in an age of worldwide migration start to think this will be a pattern for the U.S., then there are many groups who are repulsed by Trump who could well vote for a restrictionist candidate next time. (White women, in particular, likely fall into this category.)
If we avoid repeating ’86, it will likely be due to that old devil gridlock, which we’re likely due for more of, rather than any sort of inspired or responsible leadership from a President Clinton. After that, it’s time to start thinking of new ways to approach the problem. None of this means that compromise, enforcement, or even amnesty are bad things per se. But it does mean that doing the same thing and expecting different results is nuts. Some on the left may actually like the results, but those in the center and the center-right—those concerned by where this election led—might want to try something new.