Republican Congressman Steve King recently said something incredibly irresponsible – and it had nothing to do with calves, cantaloupes, or carrying caches of contraband cannabis. He appeared on Univision and, in response to a question about dealing with the unauthorized immigrant population in the U.S., he stated: “it isn't my responsibility to solve that problem.”[1]

Representative King could be excused because he has only been in Congress for ten years and didn’t create the problem. In fact, there are other sitting members of Congress who have played a major role in the creation of this problem over the last 25 years, namely Congressman Lamar Smith, first elected in 1986.

In May, Representative Smith advocated that immigration reform should be done “very carefully, methodically – and not quickly.”[2] In late-July, he penned an op-ed in the National Review, GOP Should Face Facts on Immigration Reform,[3] concluding that there is no need for significant reform, only more enforcement. He recycled the same short-sighted policy perspective embodied by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) [4] and that has stymied the creation of functional guest worker programs for more than two decades.

There are other key facts that the GOP should consider.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which legalized 3 million unauthorized immigrants attracted by employment. The law created commissions to evaluate labor market needs, but did not create any new guest worker programs.
Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990, addressing temporary and permanent visas for the skilled, highly-talented, and highly-educated. It too failed to provide any meaningful options to employ workers in lesser-skilled positions. The green card quota for lesser-skilled workers was initially set at 10,000 per year, to cover both workers and family members, and Congress cut that quota to only 5,000 in 1997.[5]

Congress passed IIRAIRA in 1996. Smith was one of the principal drivers of this law drafted to make penalties of not complying with U.S. immigration laws so severe, illegal immigration would be drastically reduced. That law failed to create guest worker programs or add visas for lesser-skilled workers, however, it did drastically impact the de facto guest worker program that had been in place for decades.
Prior to IIRAIRA, unauthorized workers would visit the U.S. for short periods of time and then return to their home countries of residence. As a result of the IIRAIRA’s draconian penalties (e.g. 3 year, 10 year, and permanent bars), these unauthorized workers have since come to the U.S. and either brought their families with them or started families here in the U.S.

From 2003 to present, most immigration legislation activity has been at the state level. These efforts generally mimic the ‘enforcement only’ approach of IIRAIRA. These laws reduce the effectiveness of local police efforts, but have not reduced the unauthorized immigrant populations in the targeted states or nationally.[6]

In June, the Senate passed Senate Bill 744, a bi-partisan, mostly functional solution that both increases enforcement and legalizes the undocumented population. This bill increases immigrant visa availability to largely address backlogs, but inadequately addresses work visa needs for lesser-skilled workers.

The ball has been in the House of Representative’s court since late-June and the Republican majority’s approach is puzzling. From the outside, they give the impression of fully evaluating all of the immigration issues and assure us that they will, in good time, come up with better solutions than the Senate did, without realistically dealing with the unauthorized immigrant population. Unfortunately, they are not objectively and critically looking at the failures of the ‘enforcement-only’ policies of IIRAIRA and state legislation. Instead, their position seems to both expand and embrace them both. Why?

In large part because this one influential Republican member has, carefully, methodically – and not quickly, remained inflexible. He will not consider that his ‘enforcement only’ policies have not only failed, they have largely contributed to the fact that 11 million people are in the U.S. without legal status.

President Ronald Reagan was right to advocate for and approve comprehensive immigration reform. His administration worked to achieve bi-partisan reform in 1986. In his words, that legislation took into consideration our country’s sovereignty and heritage of legal immigration in a manner intended to “improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society” and provided them with the ability to “step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans.”[7] President Reagan clearly stated that our country’s objective should be “to establish a reasonable, fair, orderly, and secure system of immigration into this country and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people.”[8]

Representative Smith, the American people and your political party deserve better. Please own up to your shortcomings and support comprehensive immigration reforms that provide a pathway to permanent resident status; the smart, effective and more efficient enforcement of the law; and a truly fair, orderly and secure system of immigration. It is the right thing to do.

Bio: Anthony “Tony” Weigel practices immigration law in the Kansas City area. His practice focuses on business immigration sponsorship, for both temporary and permanent resident visas, and employer compliance (I-9/E-Verify). Twitter: @TonyWeigel.




[4] Pub. Law 104-208, div. C; 110 Stat. 3009, 3009-46 to 724 (Sept. 30, 1996)

[5] NACARA, Pub. Law 105-100, title II; 111 Stat. 2160, 2193-201

[6] See:, Table on page 24. Although Arizona and Colorado show reductions, the states of Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Nebraska, all states that have enacted laws, showed increases in estimated unauthorized immigrant populations. The overall unauthorized immigrant population estimates between 2005 and 2010 remained basically the same – around 11 million.


[8] Id.