Ronald Reagan was right on amnesty for immigrants. Here’s why.

In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan congatulates Rep. Romano Mazzoli, one of the principal architects of a sweeping immigration reform law.
In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan congatulates Rep. Romano Mazzoli, one of the principal architects of a sweeping immigration reform law. The New York Times

In 1985, President Reagan asked his domestic policy council: Should I keep pushing legislation offering amnesty to undocumented immigrants?

Many Reagan aides wanted to drop this proposal, and pollsters told the president the public opposed it. His own amnesty bill had been defeated in Congress in 1982 and 1984. But Reagan refused to surrender.

Recently at his presidential library, I read records about the bill that became the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and that long been dismissed across the political spectrum as “the failed amnesty law.”

But the documents tell another story. The 1986 law was well-conceived and humane, reflecting the practical wisdom of a president from California.


Reagan and his co-sponsor, U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, pushed the bill for two reasons. First, they saw legalization as essential to protecting immigrants. (Reagan often shared personal stories of the exploitation of undocumented immigrants.) Second, they worried that undocumented immigrants would be used as scapegoats to divide the country if they weren’t integrated into society.

“If we do not choose to have immigration reform in the near future, the alternative will not just be the status quo,” Simpson said in 1986. “No, the alternative instead will be an increased public intolerance — a failure of compassion, if you will — toward all forms of immigration and types of entrants.”

Joe Mathews (1).JPG
Joe Mathews Fresno Bee file

The bill eventually passed and forestalled Simpson’s nightmare, but only for a while.

Today’s conflicts exist not because amnesty failed, as those who want to restrict immigration claim, but because of our collective failure to understand what made the 1986 law successful.

It had two big pieces. Under one, 2.7 million undocumented immigrants received permanent residency and could build lives in America. This was the law’s fundamental success. Application fees also turned a $100 million profit for the government. And while restrictionists claim that amnesty encouraged more illegal immigration, studies show the opposite.

Unfortunately, 2 million others didn’t legalize their status — because the law was not generous enough. It covered only immigrants who had arrived before 1982. Some undocumented immigrants feared revealing their status and others were discouraged by the bureaucratic process. In retrospect, amnesty should have covered all undocumented immigrants and established a regular legalization process every few years.

The legislation’s other big piece was more influential in turning immigration into an American quagmire. A new enforcement system against employing the undocumented didn’t stop illegal immigration, nor have the ensuing 30 years of new restrictions. Instead, such laws and our failure to have another amnesty, have made it nearly impossible for undocumented persons to legalize their status, thus adding to the numbers of people who live in the shadows. Even migrants who arrive legally and apply to stay are turned into lawbreakers.

Unfortunately, both advocates and opponents of immigration still follow this same failed script of prioritizing increased spending on enforcement. If they offer a path to legal status, it is decades long and thus worthless.

Let’s flip that script. Make amnesty, not enforcement, the starting point on immigration. Not one more penny for enforcement until there’s amnesty for all our undocumented neighbors.

Amnesty is wise for reasons bigger than immigration. This has become a brutally unforgiving country. Americans needs amnesty not to forgive immigrants, but that we might forgive ourselves.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at


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