William Hamilton – Immigration: President Reagan’s great mistake
July 13, 2010
Back in 1986, late-night comedians said of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration legislation: “Simpson gets to stay, but Mazzoli has to go.” But Simpson-Mazzoli turned out to be no joke. In fact, by any objective standard, the immigration bill signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 was an absolute disaster. It failed to achieve all three of its stated objectives:
1. Force U.S. employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status. The fine for scofflaw employers was inconsequential. There was no punishment provision for being here illegally.
2. Make it illegal to “knowingly” hire or recruit illegal immigrant workers. The fines were a joke, document fraud was rampant, and there was little or no enforcement.
3. Bring an end to the flood of illegal immigrants being attracted to the U.S. by the 92 months of the Reagan supply-side economics boom. Simpson-Mazzoli granted various forms of amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants and, because our borders have remained virtually unsecured and because there has been no political will by either Republicans or Democrats to enforce the puny provisions of Simpson-Mazzoli, the last 24 years have seen the number of illegal immigrants swell to somewhere between 12 and 20 million.
Some of President Reagan’s most devoted fans consider the signing of Simpson-Mazzoli one of his greatest mistakes. Former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese recalls President Reagan did not like the amnesty provisions of Simpson-Mazzoli, but signed it anyway. That is the kind of mistake no rational president should ever make.
But rationality, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. What if a president is not in favor of border control? What if a president sees political advantage in becoming the amnesty champion for some 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants who, out of gratitude, would then vote for him and for his political party?
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If partisan political advantage is the goal, then total amnesty is totally rational. Moreover, if a sitting president doesn’t even want to enforce the weak provisions of federal law as codified by Simpson-Mazzoli, then that president would not want a state like Arizona or any state to be enforcing federal immigration law.
Now, the Obama administration is suing Arizona to stop Arizona from enforcing federal immigration law, citing the idea that immigration law is a field already occupied or “pre-empted” by the federal government.
But wait. What about the cities that have pre-empted federal law by legislating themselves as “sanctuary cities”? Clearly, those cities were acting in an area of the law “pre-empted” by federal law. Why have they not been sued? Well, if your objective is to make America one big, open-bordered sanctuary, then you don’t exert the federal pre-emption when you don’t want to do so. You only enforce the federal pre-emption against state laws you don’t like.
Ironically, Rhode Island state troopers have been enforcing an ID-check immigration law like that of Arizona for several years; however, Rhode Island is not being sued by the Obama administration.
If the Arizona ID-check immigration is offensive to the Obama administration, then the Rhode Island law should be offensive as well. But then, if you are into selective-law enforcement of the law to begin with, why bother with concepts such as: equal justice and equality before the law?
This February, in Estrada v. Rhode Island, the U.S. Court of Appeals (1st Circuit) ruled in favor of Rhode Island’s ID-check immigration procedures, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Muehler v. Mena (2005) that police who have detained a suspect may also check the person’s immigration status. Those rulings should bode well for Arizona.
But if Mr. Obama gets Ms. Elena Kagan confirmed to the U.S Supreme Court, then Muehler v. Mena and Estrada v. Rhode Island might be overturned; proving, once again, that presidential elections are as much about the courthouse as they are about the White House.
– Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is a former assistant professor of political science and history at Nebraska Wesleyan University.
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