Karen Tumulty: On Immigration, Build a Table, Not a Wall

Continued delay in updating the immigration system creates an illusion that American society itself can be insulated from the forces of globalism and multiculturalism.

It has been more than three decades since the country began a landmark experiment in how to balance the necessity of controlling the nation’s borders against the ideal of welcoming those who aspire to being an American.

Then, a largely unknown 35-year-old representative from Brooklyn was in the thick of the negotiations. The day that President Ronald Reagan signed the result — the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act — into law, that congressman summed up what many were thinking.

“The bill is a gamble,” Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “a riverboat gamble.”

The 1986 law gets mentioned frequently these days. Its miscalculations and unanticipated consequences helped turn immigration into the scorching issue that it is today.

Where there were believed to be a maximum of 5 million people living illegally in the United States in 1986, there are more than double that number now.

However, the mistake was not that the law gave amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, which many on the right argue created an incentive for more people to come across the border illegally.

The 1986 act failed to achieve its goals because the federal government never enforced the penalties it was supposed to impose on employers who hired undocumented workers. It also offered no flexibility to deal with the changing labor needs of an economy that was undergoing enormous transformation.

The magical thinking was not in passing a big, ambitious immigration law. It was in underestimating the resources it would take to implement it, and in not recognizing that immigration is an engine in need of constant tuneup.

That is why the lessons of 1986 are not arguments for building a wall or for putting drastic limitations on legal immigration.

Or for gridlock.

But that is what we are left with. This week, the Senate failed to come up with an answer for the relatively straightforward problem of what to do about hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country by their parents. Many of them have never known anywhere else as home.

By Karen Tumulty for THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE
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