Bryan Caplan  

Was the Reagan Amnesty Bad for Immigrants?

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I struggled to locate the 1984 open borders editorial that won Mathieu Giroux his bet with his uncle, but he kindly helped me out.  Here is Robert Bartley's legendary Wall Street Journal column is in all its individualist glory.  Philosophically, I'm in near-perfect agreement:

If Washington still wants to "do something" about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders.  Perhaps this policy is overly ambitious in today's world, but the U.S. became the world's envy by trumpeting precisely this kind of heresy. Our greatest heresy is that we believe in people as the great resource of our land. Those who would live in freedom have voted over the centuries with their feet. Wherever the state abused its people, beginning with the Puritan pilgrims and continuing today in places like Ho Chi Minh City and Managua, they've aimed for our shores. They -- we -- have astonished the world with the country's success.

The nativist patriots scream for "control of the borders." ...Does anyone want to "control the borders" at the moral expense of a 2,000-mile Berlin Wall with minefields, dogs and machine-gun towers? Those who mouth this slogan forget what America means. They want those of us already safely ensconced to erect giant signs warning: Keep Out, Private Property.

The instinct is seconded by the "zero-sum" mentality that has been intellectually faddish this past decade. More people, the worry runs, will lead to overcrowding; will use up all our "resources," and will cause unemployment. Trembling no-growthers cry that we'll never "feed," "house" or "clothe" all the immigrants -- though the immigrants want to feed, house and clothe themselves.

What shocked me, though, is that Bartley's editorial asks Reagan to veto the Simpson-Mazzoli bill:

Simpson-Mazzoli, we are repeatedly told, is a carefully crafted compromise. It is in fact an anti-immigration bill... If it survives conference, President Reagan would be wise to veto it as antithetical to the national self-confidence his administration has done so much to renew.

Simpson-Mazzoli is the very bill that ultimately became the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that modern nativists so revile for amnestying millions of illegal immigrants.  My first reaction was that Bartley was being a libertarian purist - focusing on minor downsides for immigrants instead of judging the overall package.  But after pondering the details of the 1986 bill, I've reconsidered.  

Key point: In addition to the amnesty, the bill made it illegal to hire or recruit illegal immigrants knowingly.  In other words, before 1986, it was legal to knowingly hire and recruit illegal immigrants!  Once immigrants were over the border, U.S. employers could hire them without fear.  Sure, illegal workers were still vulnerable to deportation, but employers are easier targets for legal prosecution.  Employees and employers can both hide from regulators, but only employees can run. 

The Immigration Reform and Control Act was a blessing for illegal immigrants who arrived before 1982 (the amnesty cutoff), but a disaster for all the illegal immigrants who arrived since.  What's the net effect for immigrants?  You've got to look at the numbers.  As opponents of the act often point out, illegal immigration exploded after the amnesty.  The population climbed from around two million in 1983 to eleven million today.  From nativists' point of view, this was a disaster because the 1986 act was supposed to make illegal immigration go down.  From a principled pro-immigrant point of view, though, the disaster was that the 1986 act helped a stock of a few million current immigrants at the expense of an indefinite flow many millions of subsequent immigrants.

You could argue that the 1986 precedent caused the massive increase in illegal immigration by fostering hope of future amnesties.  But suppose the amnesty never happened, but illegal immigrants knew that U.S. employers could hire them without fear.  Wouldn't illegal immigration would have been higher still?  If you're a prospective illegal immigrant, the vague possibility of getting amnesty in a decade or three is far less motivating than the strong probability of getting a decent job without papers as soon as you clear the border. 

On balance, then, Bartley's dim view of the 1986 act seems justified.  Indeed, the best case against Bartley is probably that if the 1986 act hadn't passed, Congress would have eventually adopted employer penalties without an amnesty.  But I don't see any President from Reagan to Obama having both the will and the support to make that happen.  Am I wrong?




COMMENTS (4 to date)
MikeP writes:

On balance, then, Bartley's dim view of the 1986 act seems justified.

I must concur. As Milton Friedman has said:

...Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal.

That’s an interesting paradox to think about. Make it legal and it’s no good. Why? Because as long as it’s illegal the people who come in do not qualify for welfare, they don’t qualify for social security, they don’t qualify for the other myriad of benefits that we pour out from our left pocket to our right pocket. So long as they don’t qualify they migrate to jobs. They take jobs that most residents of this country are unwilling to take. They provide employers with the kind of workers that they cannot get. They’re hard workers, they’re good workers, and they are clearly better off.

The 1986 reform is not as bad as the despicably awful "carefully crafted compromise" generated by current comprehensive immigration reform efforts. But it both closes off the very way that illegal immigrants help the US -- namely, by employing themselves within it -- and is profoundly anti-freedom by abrogating US citizens' and residents' individual rights of association and contract.

Rocinante writes:

The employer penalty part of the bill was seldom enforced - that's why opponents of immigration don't like it.

Richard A. writes:

Here is President Reagan during the 1984 debates talking about employer sanctions.

As I recall, FAIR supported the 1986 bill.

Scott Sumner writes:

I recall opposing the legislation because it made it illegal to hire undocumented workers.

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