States taking a DIY approach to immigration is not new. Last time the end result was amnesty—and brace yourself, conservative red-blooded, Utahns—Ronald Reagan approved it. With Arizona’s immigration bill unleashing a shitstorm of anti-federalist rage in the form of copycat laws being proposed all across the country—including Utah-- it helps to take a step back and look at what happened the last time the immigration issue came to a boil in America.
According to Roger Tsai a Salt Lake City immigration attorney who also serves on the Sal Lake Chamber Immigration Taskforce, a similar emergence of state-sponsored immigration bills across the country led to the creation of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act or the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. The act among other things required employers attest to the legal status of their employees and made it illegal for them to knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, and it also provided amnesty to undocumented workers in the country since 1982.
Amnesty. Liberal-pushed, and Gipper approved.
“Back in 1986 we had a repeat of all these same conditions,” Tsai says comparing the present situation to then. “The states were frustrated with federal inaction and at that point there were 3 million undocumented or illegal aliens [in the U.S.]. There were so many little state laws, incongruent with each other being passed in two dozen states that it forced the federal government to act.”
Tsai sees Arizona’s SB 1070 and other proposals, like Howard Stephenson’s guest worker proposal, as part of a similar trend. Ultimately Tsai doesn’t put much stock in proposals like a guest worker program since they would be untenable. A Utah visa, for example, would not only require money for enforcement, but it would also require cooperation with Utah and foreign embassies and surrounding states, as well as the creation of a Utah border patrol. Even with Stephenson’s proposal which would allow for immigrants who may have overstayed on visas to enter into private sector controlled work permits with employers would still run into trouble with the federal government.
“You could allow for the right to work without allowing the right to be in the U.S.,” Tsai says, adding however that if an “employer starts using a lot of these Utah immigration visas, they would be easily targeted by ICE and all workers would be deemed ineligible to work and they would be deported.”
The upshot at least to every state deciding to either follow the Arizona route or take another approach is that no matter how crazy or unlikely the bill is to survive muster—whether that’s by legal challenge or just practical implementation—states’ immigration bills can at least have a snowball effect that can force the feds to enact some kind of reform. If not, they’ll be up to their asses in legal filings and lawyer bills as they busily squash immigration laws one state at a time.
Ultimately it will be telling to see if, like 1986, that federal reform will require perhaps a similar one-time call of amnesty. If politicians can’t settle on comprehensive reform that provides a permanent track for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship, then my suspicion is that as a compromise, there will be yet again an ‘80s throwback to a one-time call for amnesty.
Either that or one hell of a wall.