The Roots of the Debate on Immigration and a Border Wall

The subject of immigration has been at the forefront of national discussion, especially since the results of the 2016 election. The current debate we are having and the advocacy for a border wall from the Trump Administration stems from over three quarters of a century of history.

The Bracero Program and Illegal Immigration

In 1942, the bracero program was established through the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement between the United States and Mexico. This program legally imported laborers from Mexico and provided for decent living conditions with a 30-cent minimum wage (also the minimum for U.S. workers at the time), which served to reduce the cost of food but also cheapen the value of domestic agricultural labor. In 1951, the program was formally extended with regulations by Congress. These laborers tended to work either on farms or for railroads and because they were assigned to one employer, this employer had a lot more power over them than they would in a traditional market economy. In some cases, this led to outright exploitation, resulting in many postwar strikes by the braceros. At the time, it was conservatives who largely supported the importation of these laborers while liberals opposed it as it harmed the earning capacity of domestic labor. In 1954, the issue of the presence of illegal immigrants resulted in a sweeping operation by the Eisenhower Administration called “Operation Wetback”. Although this resulted in the return of over 1 million to Mexico, illegal immigration persisted as enforcement declined starting in 1955 and this served to undermine the bracero program as farmers wanted to get around its regulations. The program received a critical blow in 1961 when President Kennedy, an opponent, signed into law legislation that while extending it for two years also required U.S. workers to have the same benefits as braceros, which resulted in their employment to drastically decline. In 1964, Congress opted not to extend the program. However, the issue of migrant labor remained and because of a loophole in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act that permitted their employment despite illegal entry resulted in a spike in its use in the 1970s. Calls for immigration reform increased but because there were (and still are) numerous issues surrounding migrant labor, session after session of Congress kicked the can down the road as they were unable to reach an agreement.

The First Amnesty Bill

In 1986, Congress considered the Simpson-Mazzoli bill to reform immigration, and one of the major provisions of this bill was amnesty. Amnesty would be granted to any illegal alien who could prove that he or she had lived in the United States on or before January 1, 1982. In exchange, there was to be a crackdown on employers hiring them and strengthened border security. Many Republicans at the time opposed the amnesty provision, most notably Bill McCollum of Florida, who stated that legalization would “send a signal…we’ve done it once, so we would probably do it again” (Drew). He proposed striking the amnesty portion from the bill, which was narrowly killed on a 192-199 vote. 68 Democrats and 124 Republicans voted to kill amnesty while 159 Democrats and 40 Republicans opposed. Among the representatives voting on McCollum’s proposal were future Republican presidential contenders John McCain of Arizona, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and John Kasich of Ohio, future Senate leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and future Vice President Dick Cheney (R-Wyo.). McCain, Gingrich, and Schumer voted to keep amnesty while Lott, Reid, Kasich, Daschle, and Cheney voted to delete it. Had amnesty been deleted, it would have killed immigration reform for the session. The law was subsequently passed and after the employer sanctions section was weakened due to pressure from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and civil rights activists, it was signed into law.,d_placeholder_euli9k,h_1439,w_2560,x_0,y_0/dpr_1.5/c_limit,w_1044/fl_lossy,q_auto/v1492189304/articles/2014/01/31/the-anguish-of-alan-simpson-tragic-hero-of-immigration-reform/140130-clift-immigration-tease_eof2je

President Reagan signs the Simpson-Mazzoli Act into law, November 6, 1986.

Despite the intentions of the act to reduce the illegal immigrant population, by 2013 it had more than doubled from 5 million to 11.1 million. The failure of the Simpson-Mazzoli law can be attributed to several factors. First, the amnesty of 3 million came into action first despite a report released on March 1, 1981 from the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, chaired by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, which concluded that the American border must be secured first to successfully enact immigration reform.  Second, the employer sanctions portion was weak and not strongly enforced. Third, there was about a decade of delay before increased border security. Some, such as the law’s sponsor Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), placed the blame on the failure of effective enforcement of employer sanctions for employment of illegals. According to President Reagan’s son, Michael, Reagan in retirement expressed regret for a lack of follow-through on enforcement of employer sanctions and border security.


In all, we are at this point in history because we never came up with a satisfactory legal substitute to fill in the void left by the expiration of the bracero program. To those who decry the current calls for a border wall, bear in mind that it took us a long time to get to this argument. The fact that the debate has even gotten to the point in which we have elected a president whose campaign centered on advocacy for a border wall speaks to over fifty years of policy failure on immigration and labor policy regarding the southern border. Had immigration reform in 1986 been effective at cutting down on illegal immigration, the issue would not be a focus of current politics and Donald Trump would probably not be our current president.


Congress Clears Overhaul of Immigration Law. Congressional Quarterly Almanac, 1986.

Retrieved from

Drew, C. (1986, October 10). House Passes Immigration Bill – With a Catch. Chicago Tribune.

Retrieved from

Nowicki, D. (2018, February 11). Did Ronald Reagan regret 1986 immigrant ‘amnesty’ law? Arizona Republic.

Retrieved from

Plumer, B. (2013, January 30). Congress tried to fix immigration back in 1986. Why did it fail? Washington Post.

Retrieved from

To Amend HR 3810, To Strike the Legalization Program Provisions.

Retrieved from

U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest. (1981, March 1). Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

Retrieved from



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s