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Where Trump Amnesty Proposal Could Repeat Reagan’s Mistakes

by The Daily Signal | Updated on 3.27.18

Fred Lucas / @FredLucasWH / March 06, 2018

A Republican president offers legal status to some 2 million illegal immigrants in exchange for stronger border security. However, in part because of chain migration, more than 1 million more gained amnesty than initially estimated.

That’s what happened after President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration reform bill in 1986. And some border hawks fear that if President Donald Trump strikes a deal on amnesty for some illegal immigrants in exchange for beefed-up border security, the outcome could far exceed the total of 1.8 million he cites.

“These are always just estimates,” Eric Ruark, director of research at NumbersUSA, told The Daily Signal. “The proposals don’t say if there is an ‘up to’ number of immigrants, or an end time to qualify.”

A federal judge in Maryland ruled Tuesday in favor of the Trump administration in a lawsuit challenging the Justice Department’s ability to rescind the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

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The president soon tweeted:

The Obama administration program, known as DACA, allowed those brought here illegally as children to be protected from deportation and to receive work permits. But Trump joined many others in arguing that only Congress may do that.

In February, the Senate killed four bills to legalize the status of that subpopulation of illegal immigrants, known as “Dreamers.” Each bill would have needed 60 votes to move to a final vote without being blocked by a filibuster.

Legislation backed by the president drew just 39 votes.

A bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., failed by a 54-45 vote after Trump vowed to veto the measure.

A total of 690,000 illegal immigrants were accepted by President Barack Obama’s DACA program of 2012 and shielded from deportation. In September, Trump ordered DACA to be phased out for expiration beginning March 5.

Estimates vary on just how far off the 1986 Reagan amnesty, formally known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, ended up being in the number of illegal immigrants who got legal status.

Trump favors ending the immigration policy known as chain migration, which prioritizes family reunification and allows relatives of legal immigrants to enter the country. But winding down that process would take time.

Ruark of NumbersUSA, which advocates more limits on immigration, dismisses the notion that DACA beneficiaries could be prevented from using chain migration.

“It’s very difficult to say to this new subset of naturalized citizens, ‘You can’t sponsor your relatives,’ preventing DACA recipients from being like any other citizen,” Ruark said. “That would never stand up in court, and it shouldn’t. You can’t have two tiers of citizens.”

Also, in part because the promised border-security portion of the 1986 law didn’t materialize, the number of illegal immigrants in the country nearly quadrupled to an estimated 11 million today.

“When you legalize 3 million illegal immigrants, it’s a magnet for chain illegal immigration,” James Carafano, vice president for national security and foreign policy at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.

“Before the 1986 law, most illegal immigration was on the two coasts and in the southern agriculture centers,” Carafano said, “After, illegal immigration has become a national problem.”

Carafano said stopping fraud likely would be a problem with a Trump amnesty, as it was with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Just as DACA recipients are a subset of illegal immigrants, in 1986, the illegal immigrants eligible for legal status had to be in the United States before 1982 and another category was created for “special agriculture workers.”

When Congress passed the 1986 amnesty bill, Immigration and Naturalization Services (now Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) projected that between 1.34 million and 2.66 million illegal immigrants would qualify.

However, the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative immigration think tank, citing a 1989 New York Times article and academic research, noted the agricultural program is rife with fraud.

Although 400,000 agricultural workers were expected to benefit, the number grew to 1.1 million, about a quarter of all amnesties, according to a 2006 report from the center. This was nearly triple the estimate, indicating potential fraud.

In 1989, statistics from Immigration and Naturalization Services showed the government denied 888,637 applications for amnesty in the category of special agriculture workers. But only 60,020 of those denials became final, according to research from the Ford Foundation. One author noted the difference demonstrated a lack of enforcement.

The Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s auditor, reported in 2006 that potentially one-third of immigration applications involve fraud.

“Our ability to prevent fraud is limited because of the limited resources,” Steve Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Daily Signal. “A lot of folks that wouldn’t normally qualify will be coming forward to take advantage.”

An estimate by NumbersUSA is higher for the Reagan administration amnesty, projecting that it actually led to more than 5 million new legal permanent residents.

By 2009, at least 1.1 million additional immigrants were naturalized as a direct result of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a report from the Department of Homeland Security found.

Ruark, of NumbersUSA, estimates these newly naturalized residents were able to sponsor one or both parents. These new citizens also could sponsor unmarried adult children and spouses’ children from a previous marriage.

“That’s potentially five or six chain immigrants, just from one IRCA citizen,” Ruark said, adding: “I try to err on the conservative side. So let’s go with 2.5 million to 3 million [from chain migration]. Added to 2.7 million [from the 1986 law], we get 5.2 million to 5.7 million total.”

In 2013, a PolitiFact article placed the number at 4.41 million, including about 2.7 million who initially gained legal status under the 1986 law and 1.7 million who gained legal status between 1992 through 2012 as a result. (Illegal immigrants first gained legal status in 1992 under the law.)

The PolitiFact article contested an assertion by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that the Reagan amnesty resulted in 15 million new citizens.

The Daily Signal

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