Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Immigration Reform

By Nicholas Laham | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The Assumptions Influencing the Development of the Reagan Administration's Immigration Policy

During the 1980s. . . . the movement to a much more expansive immigration policy, stymied for so long, occurred with remarkable speed. 1

-- Peter H. Schuck, professor, Yale Law School

Immigration reform represented, at best, only a marginal priority on Reagan's agenda when he entered the White House on January 20, 1981. Rather, Reagan's two most pressing priorities when he was inaugurated as president were to restore noninflationary economic growth while rebuidling America's shattered defenses. Reagan entered the White House at a time when the United States was suffering an economic and military decline. The Carter years had been marked by an economic malaise, involving a particularly virulent combination of low levels of economic growth and high rates of inflation. The defense posture of the United States had been adversely affected by a precipitous decline in American military power and prestige which followed the American defeat in the Vietnam War. Given the severe erosion in American economic and military power during the Carter administration, it is understandable that the economy and defense represented the two most pressing issues which confronted Reagan when he entered the White House.

However, Reagan could not escape the issue of immigration reform when he assumed the presidency. In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration Act, designed to dismantle the discriminatory barriers which prevented all but a token number of non-Europeans, born in the Eastern Hemisphere, from immigrating to the United States. However, the bill had the unintended effect of unleashing a wave of immigration, both legal and illegal, to the United States. By the late 1970s, immigration policy had fallen into complete disarray. Legal immigration

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