Immigration reform: Long overdue


“Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
–Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressing the Daughters of the American Revolution, April 1938

Americans’ ambivalence about immigration has increased as millions of undocumented immigrants began arriving in the U.S. following the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

Today the country faces a growing problem on the Southern border that was exacerbated when the Trump administration instituted the zero-tolerance policy and separated some 4,000 children from their migrant parents. The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security reported that the government’s records were so poorly kept that no one knew where hundreds of these children were located. One of President Biden’s goals is to find and return them to their parents.

The Department of Homeland Security has acted, but Congress must also. It has in the past, and it must do so again now. Quickly. The iconic example is the bill signed in November 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, the Immigration Reform and Control Act. At the time of its enactment, the president noted that it was “the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws” in over 35 years.

The law, an effort by Republicans and Democrats, achieved three goals: a path to citizenship for the undocumented in the country as of 1982, economic sanctions on employers who failed to determine the immigration status of their workers, and authority to enforce immigration laws. The measure passed the House, 238-173, and the Senate, 63-24. 

The president supported a path to citizenship. He noted that “the legalization provisions in this act will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight, and ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”

The problem is that today is not 1986. Rifts between Republicans and Democrats over the past 20 years have forestalled any compromise on a wide-ranging package of bills.

In his 2007 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush, like Ronald Reagan, advocated comprehensive immigration reform. He supported increased border security and holding employers accountable for hiring undocumented migrants. But he went farther, in his words, to say, “People who have worked hard, supported their families, avoided crime, led responsible lives, and become a part of American life should be called in out of the shadows and under the rule of American law.” In other words, they must be offered a path to citizenship.

The bill died in the Senate, killed by the filibuster despite the bipartisanship of its main supporters: Senators Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.), John McCain (R., Ariz.), John Kyl (R., Ariz.), and Harry Reid (D., Nev.).

President Obama too attempted, and failed, at immigration reform. In 2012, he signed an executive order authorizing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to defer action against the children of undocumented migrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. He supported the bill crafted by the so-called Senate bipartisan Gang of Eight that contained a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants over 13 years and additional billions of dollars for border security. It handily passed the Senate, but the House never took it up.

The problem at the Southern border has grown over the past several months as increasing numbers of people flee poverty, violence, and disease in their native lands. The Trump administration ended the Reagan/Bush/Obama attempts to reform immigration with no plan except to close the border and build a fence. 

The opportunity is there, as the Biden administration has proposed the comprehensive U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, even as the president turns back migrants seeking asylum but allows unaccompanied minors to remain. But the lack of bipartisanship has forced the administration to break up the bill for now, leaving only a few items: protecting the Dreamers, those brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were children whom President Obama protected in 2012, and granting temporary safety to migrant workers in need of humanitarian protection. The House passed these modest proposals on March 18, and they now go to the Senate. Passage would bring great relief to many people on this Island.

No doubt the border needs greater security, but those who have long lived, worked, and contributed to the American economy need protections and a way to contribute to the success of American democracy. The bill Ronald Reagan signed back in 1986 remains the standard of bipartisanship that proves that democracy is workable. As he put it, the law “has truly been a bipartisan effort, with this administration and the allies of immigration reform in the Congress, of both parties, working together to accomplish these critically important reforms.”


Jack Fruchtman, who lives in Aquinnah, taught constitutional law and politics for more than 40 years.