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Guzzardi: Why immigration reform failed in 1986

I’m a native Californian who grew up in the 1950s when the state was truly Golden. The family album has photos with us alone on Malibu Beach. I went to college back east, got my first jobs in finance in New York, and eventually returned to California in 1986.

My return to the state took me to the San Joaquin Valley where I had a career shift from banking to teaching English as a second language, now called the English Learners Program, in the state’s public school system. Back then, I knew nothing about immigration, but teaching English to adults — mostly migrant farmworkers — was an eye-opener, an immigration baptism by fire, so to speak.

During my teaching tenure, President Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which included a condition that green card seekers had to spend 40 total hours in an authorized California public school system for an English language class. My students were good hard-working people who wanted to improve their lives. But to my disappointment, most students left after 40 hours even though they had not acquired the required English conversational skills. I pointed out to my students that they would spend many more years in the U.S. than they ever did in their native country, and limited English would doom them to low-paying jobs and an inability to take full advantage of all the riches that America offers.

I taught in Lodi for about 20 years, watching California’s population increase from the 10 million of my childhood to an unsustainable population of almost 40 million. The state’s K-12 school districts were particularly hard hit. The Lodi Unified School District’s non-English speaking population grew to about 30 percent, making learning conditions difficult for all -- natives, immigrants and, although they would only admit this among themselves, the teachers. Currently, the state has about 1.4 million K-12 English Learners at an annual taxpayer expense that exceeds $10 billion.

Among the many arguments against amnesty, the most compelling is that it begets more illegal immigration. The math proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that indeed amnesty leads to more immigration, which has driven the state’s population growth and strained social services.

President Reagan promised that IRCA would be the last-ever amnesty. While not all of those illegally present in 1986 took advantage of IRCA, about 2.7 million did. After the federal government issued lawful permanent residency cards to those applicants who qualified, the nation’s illegal alien population was small. But IRCA didn’t end illegal immigration. Instead, as critics had predicted, illegal entry continued in even higher numbers, and is today estimated to be between 12 million and 20 million, in large part because the border and interior enforcement provisions of IRCA were never fulfilled.

The true and lasting solution to illegal immigration is the one that has met the most congressional resistance, E-Verify, an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of employees to work in the U.S. In 2009, I was E-Verified, and the process took about three minutes.

Although the political winds have shifted during the past few years, not long ago both sides of the congressional aisle largely agreed on E-Verify’s importance as well as the need for more interior enforcement.

Sen. Chuck Schumer in 2009 said: “... a biometric-based employer verification system with tough enforcement and auditing is necessary to significantly diminish the job magnet that attracts illegal aliens to the United States ...” Hefty fines on employers who criminally hire unlawfully present migrants would also help deter illegal immigration as well as give job opportunities to unemployed Americans and legal immigrants.

On Capitol Hill, rumors that President Donald Trump is considering importing more foreign-born labor and possibly granting an amnesty are rampant. But Trump isn’t insisting on mandatory E-Verify, the absence of which, even though it’s free to employers and easy to use, has led to an economy that exploits vulnerable immigrants, encourages more illegal immigration, and will eventually result in another disastrous amnesty.

Joe Guzzardi is a Progressives for Immigration Reform analyst who has written about immigration for more than 30 years. Contact him at jguzzardi@pfirdc.org.

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