A Reagan Legacy: Amnesty For Illegal Immigrants As the nation's attention turns back to the fractured debate over immigration, it might be helpful to remember that in 1986, Ronald Reagan signed a sweeping immigration reform bill into law. The bill made nearly 3 million illegal immigrants eligible for amnesty -- a word not usually associated with the father of modern conservatism.

A Reagan Legacy: Amnesty For Illegal Immigrants

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The geographer Joel Kotkin, author of the recent book "The Next Hundred Million," estimates America's population will grow by about that much by the middle of this century, some of it the result of immigration.

We begin the hour with a look at immigration and reform and the lessons from the past. But first, on this Fourth of July, some voices of recently naturalized American citizens.

Ms. METHET AVLIK(ph): My name is Methet Avlik.

Mr. DEDEK AVLIK(ph): My name is Dedek Avlik.

Ms. AYA BLANEY(ph): My name is Aya Blaney.

Mr. AVLIK: We live in Palo Alto, California.

Ms. BLANEY: I was born in Japan.

Mr. DAVID CHEN(ph): My name is David Chen.

Ms. AVLIK: We are from Germany.

Mr. CHEN: I was born in Taiwan.

Ms. AVLIK: And we became citizens of the United States on November 9, 2006.

Mr. PIERRE McCOY(ph): My name is Pierre McCoy.

Ms. LYNN BAKER(ph): My name is Lynn Baker.

Ms. EPIYE HARRY(ph): My name is Epiye Harry.

Ms. SVETLANA STEVANOVA(ph): My name is Svetlana Stevanova.

Mr. LORENZO DESALLE(ph): I'm (unintelligible) Lorenzo DeSalle.

Mr. ANDREW CLEWS(ph): My name is Andrew Clews.

Unidentified Woman #1: I was born in England.

Unidentified Woman #2: I don't know if you know Hanoi, which is the capital city.

Unidentified Man #1: I was born in Uruguay.

Unidentified Woman #2: So my hometown is two hours north of Hanoi.

Unidentified Man #1: ...in a small town. I work in a ranch.

Unidentified Man #2: The cheese was plastic.

Unidentified Man #1: I was working with my father on weekends or days after school.

Unidentified Man #2: I've never American cheese before. I was used to French cheese.

Unidentified Man #3: The first time I did a relatively long road trip was when it really was (unintelligible) to me about how big the States really is.

Unidentified Man #2: I always thought it was really weird that all these cars were just so big.

Unidentified Man #3: Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Denver, Colorado. I drove there, and I thought that I could do it all pretty easily in one day, and that was a big of a mistake.

Unidentified Man #4: I talk a lot with my friends about politics.

Unidentified Woman #3: I first came to the United States as an exchange student.

Unidentified Man #4: They finally went, you can't vote, so you can't say anything. And I was, like, well, I guess I should become a citizen then.

Unidentified Woman #3: I was in high school in Claude, Texas, a town of 1,200 people. Oh, it was different.

Unidentified Man #4: My view was that I wanted to be a full participant in society.

Unidentified Woman #2: My town in Russia is 600,000, and it's not that huge.

Unidentified Man #1: The hardest part for being here was when my father died.

Unidentified Woman #2: I didn't speak the language very well.

Unidentified Man #1: And I wasn't resident yet, and I had to pretty much say goodbye, you know, by the phone.

Unidentified Woman #2: Everything is so advanced compared with where I came from.

Unidentified Man #2: When I do visit my cousins in France...

Unidentified Woman #1: It was quite a shocking experience.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm always shocked by how small and dirty and urban Paris is.

Unidentified Woman #2: I just brought my mom here two months ago.

Unidentified Man #2: It was more difficult to get the paperwork, standing in line.

Unidentified Woman #2: She doesn't have any friends.

Unidentified Man #2: Talking to the INS agents, taking your test...

Unidentified Woman #2: It's been pretty hard on her emotionally, but...

Unidentified Man #2: ...than it was to actually take the oath.

Unidentified Woman #2: I had been through that, and I have more compassion for her.

Mr. CLEWS: My name is Andrew Clews. I was born in Auckland, New Zealand.

Mr. AVLIK: We live in Palo Alto, California.

Unidentified Man #5: I live in Boston.

Unidentified Woman #4: I now live in New York City.

Unidentified Man #2: I live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Unidentified Woman #2: San Pedro, California.

Unidentified Woman #5: I live in Washington, D.C.

Unidentified Man #1: Fort Washington, Maryland.

Unidentified Woman #6: (Unintelligible) Northport, New York.

Unidentified Man #4: We now live in Seattle, Washington. I became a U.S. citizen.

Unidentified Man #5: A citizen.

Unidentified Group: On January 29.

Unidentified Woman #7: December...

Unidentified Man #6: February 17.

Unidentified Woman #7: ...28, 2009.

Unidentified Man #7: It was March I wish I knew the date.

Unidentified Woman #8: October 3, 2008.

Unidentified Man #8: And I became a U.S. citizen on October 31, 2008.

Unidentified Man #9: It's going to be my first Fourth of July as an American this year.

RAZ: The voices of some recently naturalized American citizens.

Now, the path to citizenship, the legal path, is difficult and in many cases arduous. And advocates of reform say it encourages illegal immigration. It's thought that some 11 million people living and working in America are doing so illegally.

President George W. Bush tried to reform the immigration system and failed. President Obama says sometime this fall, he'll try as well.

President BARACK OBAMA: Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship. And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable.

RAZ: The question is how to hold those 11 million accountable. There is only one modern American president who, with one signature from his pen, granted amnesty to nearly three million illegal immigrants. Can you guess who?

President RONALD REAGAN: I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though sometime back, they may have entered illegally.

RAZ: In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Reform and Control Act. It was designed to bring some three million illegal immigrants out from the shadows, but at the same time, it was supposed to make it much more difficult for illegal immigrants to get in, in the first place.

The law called for a 50 percent increase in border security and steep fines on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, except there was one problem.

Mr. ALAN SIMPSON (Former Republican Senator, Wyoming): There was a hell of a lot of difference between hire and knowingly hire. And the employers of America said we're not going to be the policemen of the world, and they were right.

RAZ: That's Alan Simpson. He was the Republican senator from Wyoming who co-sponsored that immigration act. He wanted the government to create a better, fraud-proof ID, like a Social Security card with a magnetic strip. He says that that would have made it harder for illegal workers to produce fake documents.

But opponents on the left and on the right called it a national ID card and compared the idea to something out of Nazi Germany. And so, Simpson says, the failure of the 1986 bill was that its main provisions couldn't be enforced. And yet 24 years on, he has no regrets.

Mr. SIMPSON: It's not perfect, but 2.9 million people came forward. And for many years after, I'd be in a restaurant somewhere and they'd come out of the kitchen and say, viva Simpson. I said, I like that. Sing it again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMPSON: And I loved that. And to me, that was worth it all. I don't, you know, I don't suck my thumb and go into a corner. You know, it wasn't what I wanted, but it was better than nothing. And now they haven't done nothing.

RAZ: Now, as I mentioned earlier, the man who helped Simpson get his law passed was Ronald Reagan. And in his 1989 farewell address, President Reagan underlined his perspective on immigration.

Pres. REAGAN: I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind, it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

RAZ: Those doors open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here, the words written by Reagan himself.

Peter Robinson was often the man charged with interpreting Reagan's thoughts and putting them to paper. He was the president's speechwriter, and he recalls how Reagan thought about immigration.

Mr. PETER ROBINSON (Former Presidential Speechwriter): He was fundamentally, almost radically, open to immigration. There is a speech he gave in 1986 at the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. I remember it pretty vividly because I drafted it. But the central passage, which I can still paraphrase reasonably closely, ran something like this: I believe that divine providence...

Pres. REAGAN: There were some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friends and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land.

Mr. ROBINSON: I just, in discussing the speech with him, I just jotted that down as quickly as I could and used his own language in that 1986 speech, a fundamental openness to immigration.

RAZ: So he had this almost romantic sense of immigration.

Mr. ROBINSON: I'm a little hesitant to endorse the word romantic, although I think I know what you're getting at, Guy, because it bleeds into the notion of sentimentality or mere naivete. But Ronald Reagan thought in terms not so much of abstract notions, but in terms of individuals.

He could picture - in his own mind's eye, he could picture those little ships that the pilgrims sailed in. He could picture the difficult, oppressive conditions under which the Chinese were brought to California. He admired people for what they had gone through to achieve better lives for themselves and their families in this country.

If that's romantic, I'm happy to call it romantic, but I don't believe it was naive. He understood this fundamental aspect of American history.

RAZ: Do you think that his views on immigration, his sort of macro views on immigration, would have put him at odds with a significant part of his own party today?

Mr. ROBINSON: I don't believe so, Guy, in the following limited sense. The kind of crystallizing consensus on the Republican side, and among conservative Democrats, I believe, also, is fix the borders first. Let Americans see that the federal government is capable of enforcing the statutes already on the books before we move toward comprehensive reform.

I believe that the president - President Reagan to me, he's always the president I believe that he, too, would have been right there in saying fix the borders first. Where he would have differed, he would have temperamentally but also politically understood the need to reach out to folks, to welcome people who are here legally.

RAZ: Hmm. Looking back, I mean, do you think that there was anything about the 1986 immigration bill that was a success?

Mr. ROBINSON: I think I know how President Reagan I think I knew him well enough to say how he would have felt about it. He'd have been furious the federal government failed to live up to its responsibilities, but note I'm saying that he'd be furious at the federal government.

He was a Californian. You couldn't live in California, as I do, of course, today without encountering over and over and over again good, hardworking, decent people, clearly recent arrivals from Mexico. I believe that in his heart, Ronald Reagan would have thought that making those three million people citizens, who were here illegally citizens, was a good thing and a success.

Now, he would have felt, as I say, furious that the way it turned out, that amnesty represented an incentive for others to come here illegally because the government failed to regain control of the border. But I think he would have felt taking those three million people and making them Americans was a success.

RAZ: That's Peter Robinson. He was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1988. He joined me from the campus of Stanford University.

Peter Robinson, thank you so much.

Mr. ROBINSON: Guy, you're very welcome.

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