The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has taken a beating in the current debate over immigration reform. Charles Krauthammer spoke for many this spring when he called the law a "fiasco where amnesty was granted and border enforcement never came." As deputy commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Reagan administration, I oversaw implementation of the 1986 law at the agency. I strongly support the current reform effort, including the amnesty provisions that are generating such controversy.
As many have noted, the challenges before the United States are essentially the same as in the 1980s: a system of legal immigration that has failed to keep up with a changing world, ineffective enforcement and a large population of people here illegally. The 1986 legislation was a compromise that sought to beef up immigration enforcement while offering legal status to several million undocumented immigrants. It made no attempt to revise the legal immigration system.
A cornerstone of that law was a provision that made it illegal for employers to hire individuals not authorized to work in the United States. This provision — which was resisted by business interests — depended on documents provided by the applicant. Document fraud and identity theft severely compromised its effectiveness. The legislation's amnesty program was also generous, particularly for agricultural workers. Overall, about 3 million individuals gained legal status. Many believe that amnesty was a magnet for the illegal immigration that became rampant in the years that followed.
In contrast, the legislation before the Senate takes a comprehensive approach. It fundamentally alters our legal immigration system by providing more opportunities for those who can make an immediate contribution to the U.S. economy. The U.S. system would shift from one geared toward the aspirations of those who would come here to one geared toward our country's human capital needs. This change comes at the expense of traditional programs allowing immigration of extended family members, but it makes sense given U.S. national interests in the highly competitive global economy.
Much of the proposal deals with enforcement and includes badly needed policy changes. Critically, the legislation would require employers to confirm the authenticity of job applicants' identification documents. A focus on interior enforcement is long overdue, and the Senate should consider shifting toward interior efforts some of the $6.5 billion earmarked for border security. Those clamoring for close examination of immigration reform in light of the Boston terrorist attack should insist on this rebalancing. The border-heavy approach that is in vogue appears to be modeled on our failed drug-enforcement programs, which focus on providers outside the country rather than users here. Demand for unauthorized workers can be dampened, but only through adequate attention to the workplace and interior enforcement. If anything, I would accelerate the rollout of the E-Verify system while helping to secure our borders faster.
Another area of concern is the establishment of border enforcement quotas. The so-called "effectiveness rate" of 90 percent has been widely discussed as an overall measure of border security. The Senate legislation even includes funding to increase border-crossing enforcement in the Tucson region to "up to 210 prosecutions per day." After overseeing operations at two of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies, the INS and the Internal Revenue Service, I am convinced that quotas tied to arrests and prosecutions hurt law enforcement and ultimately erode confidence in government. If there is a trigger mechanism associated with citizenship, it makes more sense to base it on data — compiled independently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Census Bureau — of how many unauthorized people are in the country.
Alter citizenship plan
The third leg of the reform stool is the amnesty program. (Calling it otherwise is nothing but a political fiction.) The amnesty standards would allow the full integration into our society of millions of residents across the United States already leading active, useful lives. With more robust, balanced enforcement, future illegal immigration would decline. This should address the fear that "a new amnesty" would generate further violations of our sovereignty.
I support the plan's path to citizenship — with two important changes. Agricultural workers again have been given a sweetheart deal with the creation of a "blue card" status that would allow for faster permanent legal residency. I see no reason to confer citizenship on someone who happened to work in this sector for a limited number of days in recent years. Rather than allowing agriculture workers to transition to legal residency after five years, Congress should limit blue-card status to work authorization.
For the broader undocumented population, Congress should expand the English skills requirement. Provisional immigrants should have to demonstrate sufficient mastery of English after three years, rather than at the time their status shifts to permanent residency.
Mark W. Everson is a former deputy commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.