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Obama's Immigration Action Has Roots In Reagan Policy

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, we mentioned the immigration bill signed into law by Pres. Reagan. It was signed in 28 years ago this month. It's called the Immigration Reform and Control Act and it remains the law today, with various adjustments made in the interim. Some of the earliest changes to that law were made by Pres. Reagan and Pres. George H. W. Bush, who both enlarged the number of people protected from deportation to prevent the breakup of families, and that bit of history is already reemerging in the battle over Pres. Obama's latest executive action. Joining us to talk about that is NPR's Ron Elving and Ron, the politics of the law - signed into law back in 1986. Politics were quite different then they are now.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Indeed, they were Melissa. Pres. Ronald Reagan, Republican, said at the time that he signed the bill, future generations of America will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders. And that word humanely and the word control really expressed the twin inspirations of that bill back in 1986. Now, this bill was a product of five years of negotiation between Rep. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Dem. Romano Mazzoli of Kentucky. The bill was passed with what we used to call broad bipartisan support, in both chambers of Congress and you know, it was considered a model of cooperation at the time.

BLOCK: And the central provision of that bill granted legal status to millions of residents. It was openly called amnesty.

ELVING: Yes and the thought at that time was that it was a one-time a grant, a one and off grant of amnesty to be balanced by tough new enforcement standards. They were going to reduce the appeal of hiring immigrants - illegal or otherwise. They were going to enforce the border, they were going to get tough on the border and as it turned out, those latter two parts of the equation never really balanced off the granting of legal status to all those people who were covered by the bill, and the number of people coming to the country and staying illegally greatly increased over the next 20, 25 years. It's come down a little bit in the last couple three years, where it basically had tripled before that.

BLOCK: That word though, amnesty, came to be a real bill-killer later on when there were other attempts to amend this legislation.

ELVING: Yes and of course in 2007, the second Pres. Bush, George W. Bush, tried very hard to get a bill. At that time he had the support of a number of Republicans in the Senate, who also wanted to get what they call a balanced comprehensive bill and in 2007 it was called amnesty and it simply could not overcome that image, and spiked by that particular image it died in the Senate.

BLOCK: Ron, we have been hearing Democrats say that the actions by Pres. Obama that we expect to be hearing about tonight do have a precedent in what happened after that bill became law back in the 1980s, the law that Ronald Reagan signed.

ELVING: In the first year after he signed that bill into law, Pres. Reagan enlarged the group of people who could escape deportation by including the dependent children of adults who got legal standing under Simpson Mazzoli and the idea was to be sympathetic to the families of these folks. They called them split families. And three years later, George H. W. Bush widened that circle further - at the time they thought as many as a million-and-a-half people might be covered by the Bush order. Not that many people actually ended up taking advantage of it, but again the idea was to include spouses and children other than dependent children and look to the people whose homes would otherwise be broken up when parents were legalized.

BLOCK: And briefly Ron, is it fair to consider that a precedent for what's going on now?

ELVING: In the eyes of its advocates, yes. In the eyes of Democrats, generally speaking, yes, but Republicans don't see it that way. They say that the earlier actions were essentially housekeeping to carry out the will of Congress, as expressed in the 1986 law, and that today the situation is quite different.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Ron Elving. Ron, thanks.

ELVING: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.