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Edwin Meese III

Noting “uncanny similarities” to the immigration situation 20 years ago, former Attorney General Edwin Meese says that despite President Bush’s denials, the guest-worker proposal under consideration in the Senate amounts to “amnesty.”

Meese, writing in an editorial published today by the New York Times, points out the bill passed by Congress in 1986 – which President Reagan called amnesty – has virtually the same provisions “cited by its supporters as proof that they have eschewed amnesty in favor of earned citizenship.”

Under the 1986 legislation, most illegal immigrants who could establish they had resided in the United States continuously for five years were granted temporary resident status, which could be upgraded to permanent residency after 18 months and, after another five years, to citizenship.

“Note that this path to citizenship was not automatic,” Meese points out. “Indeed, the legislation stipulated several conditions: immigrants had to pay application fees, learn to speak English, understand American civics, pass a medical exam and register for military selective service. Those with convictions for a felony or three misdemeanors were ineligible. Sound familiar?”

The 1986 bill also strengthened border security and enforcement of immigration laws, in part through sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants.

Meese, who served under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988, is now a fellow with the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

He explains that the 1986 legislation was pushed by the Democratic majority in the House and the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. President Reagan, he said, “considered it reasonable to adjust the status of what was then a relatively small population, and I supported his decision.”

The difference between then and now, Meese says, “is that President Reagan called this what it was: amnesty.”

“Indeed, look up the term ‘amnesty’ in Black’s Law Dictionary, and you’ll find it says, ‘the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for undocumented aliens already in the country.’”

Meese emphasizes the 1986 act “did not solve our illegal immigration problem.”

“From the start, there was widespread document fraud by applicants,” he says. “Unsurprisingly, the number of people applying for amnesty far exceeded projections. And there proved to be a failure of political will in enforcing new laws against employers.”

Meese says illegal immigration, after a six-month slowdown following passage of the legislation, returned to normal levels and continued unabated.

“Ultimately, some 2.7 million people were granted amnesty, and many who were not stayed anyway, forming the nucleus of today’s unauthorized population,” he said.

“So here we are, 20 years later, having much the same debate and being offered much the same deal in exchange for promises largely dependent on the will of future Congresses and presidents.”

Meese says President Bush and Congress must start with securing the border and strengthening enforcement of existing immigration laws.

Those who are here illegally, he says, must return to their country of origin and get “in line with everyone else.”

He concludes: “America welcomes more immigrants than any other country. But in keeping open that door of opportunity, we also must uphold the rule of law and enhance a fair immigration process, as Ronald Reagan said, to ‘humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.’”



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