Why We Need to Look at Past Immigration Reform

If we are ever to pass meaningful immigration reform, then looking at our recent past is a good place to start

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Immigration reform

For decades no American president has put forth a comprehensive policy that seems to satisfy all stakeholders regarding immigration reform. The current president, Donald J. Trump, used the public’s frustration over undocumented immigration as a policy issue in the 2016 presidential election deeply dividing Americans on the issue.

Congress needs to examine immigration policy historically in order to propose current legislation that will help settle this immigration divide. An examination of recent reform is invaluable in understanding the complexity of the issue. 

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Major legislative reform during the period from 1986-1996 is a result of the 1942 Bracero Program and the subsequent effects. The Bracero Program invited Mexican nationals as guest workers to support the United States agribusiness. While the history of our immigration policy has been dynamic, the period between 1986-1996 is considered pivotal in immigration reform because of a restriction that culminated in a failure to curtail unauthorized immigration. This inflamed many Americans who felt American tax dollars were being used to subsidize undocumented immigrants.

On November 6, 1986, Ronald Reagan and the 99th Congress instituted some of the most comprehensive immigration law in modern history to address the concerns of the American public.

The law held out the promise of legal status and possible citizenship to over 3 million undocumented immigrants and attempted to address some of the concerns of the anti-immigrant advocates.

Several major pieces of legislation in California openly opposed undocumented workers rights. In 1986, Proposition 63, “The California English Language Amendment,” was passed overwhelmingly by California voters, which marked the beginning of an English only movement nation-wide.

The proposition fundamentally impacted the school systems by modifying bilingual education programs that were accessed predominantly by children of undocumented workers. Proposition 187, that followed 8 years later, was a direct result of this growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

The “Save Our State” initiative, prohibited, undocumented immigrants from access to public services provided by the state, including education for their children and public assistance. 

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The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, incorporated a multi-faceted approach to dealing with the problems and issues raised with undocumented workers. This legislation attempted to address the needs and responsibilities of the employers, the undocumented workers in the country at the time and protections for American workers within the agribusiness work sites.

In addition, the IRCA granted amnesty for over 3 million undocumented workers already in the country and a path to citizenship that gave them modified legal status for employment. This program, modeled on the Bracero Program, proved to be unsuccessful because it lacked the resources and the enforcement capabilities needed to hold the employers responsible. 

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The operation and legislation of policy during this particular ten-year period clearly demonstrate the changing perception of both the documented and undocumented immigrant. When America needed a labor force to support agribusinesses during World War II, the American door was opened with the Bracero Program and immigrants were welcomed.

However, when the economic downturn of the late 80’s and early 90’s materialized, American public opinion quickly turned against the undocumented immigrant who were blamed for American issues.

This population was blamed for the diminishing resources, for economic instability and even a failing school system. As a result, America tightened security and borders, and consequently, turned a blind eye to the fundamental services that are provided for this population.

If this one ten-year period clarifies immigration policy accurately, then the latter concludes that our dynamic immigration policy was represented by the economic, political, and social winds of the American people and their representatives.

Correspondingly, the undocumented immigrant has been an integral part of the American business community. The willingness to work for less than minimum wage with substandard conditions has clearly enabled major corporations to flourish and for-profits to rise.

In an effort to level the playing field, tougher legislation and verification of eligibility to work has forced American businesses to adhere more closely to the law. Caught in the middle are the undocumented immigrants who come to the United States hoping for a better future for their family.

While their children may receive a free public education with instruction in English, high school graduated undocumented adults will find difficulty in post secondary education or in finding employment.

It seems counterproductive to educate and incorporate immigrants into the community yet not allow them to fulfill their potential or contribute to the local communities, state and country.

Although our nation was not as divided between 1986-1996 as it is today, undocumented immigrants in the nation have been incorporated at a deeper level than what citizens may believe.

To simply “remove” immigrants at this time may hinder America rather than benefit the nation. A solution may be to repeat history and grant amnesty for those already in the United States. Once we secure our border, new legislation could be enacted regarding immigration rather than repetitive policy. Only history will tell if this solution works.

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