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For Every President Since Reagan, Immigration Has Been One More Minefield


The White House began last week with a list of demands to Congress on immigration. President Trump is tying those demands to any legislative deal to protect DREAMers, those nearly 800,000 young immigrants brought here illegally as children. The Trump administration has revised its insistence on constructing a southern border wall and is also insisting on tougher laws on people seeking asylum. The issue of immigration has often put presidents at odds with Congress. And when we want a bit of history, we turn to Professor Ron.


MONTAGNE: You know him is NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: In 1790, with the American Republic still in its infancy, Congress passed its first big bill about immigrants and citizenship. It was called the Naturalization Act. And it set the rules by which new arrivals could achieve citizenship as though they were, quote, "natural" which is to say born in the U.S. Before long, that act was getting quite a workout. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, there were millions of new arrivals.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And now as the 20th century begins, the homeless, the tentless tourists come as never before searching for a new life, a new world in a new century.

ELVING: Congress passed laws along the way strictly limiting certain nationalities. But by and large, the spirit of the Statue of Liberty prevailed as she lifted her lamp beside the golden door. President John F. Kennedy embraced a policy based on the nation of immigrants concept which he described in this memorable speech from January 1963.


JOHN F KENNEDY: It is a proud privilege to be a citizen of the great republic - to realize that we are the descendants of 40 million people who left other countries, other familiar scenes to come here to the United States to build a new life, to make a new opportunity for themselves and their children.

ELVING: In 1965, Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson steered to passage the most sweeping immigration change in generations, emphasizing the reuniting of families over considerations of national origin, race and ancestry.


LYNDON B JOHNSON: This bill says simply that from this day for those wishing to emigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationships to those already here.

ELVING: Many conservatives felt the 1965 law allowed too many people to enter the country without proper vetting - new arrivals who might take jobs away from native-born Americans. But the Republican party was divided on the question. And in the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan would grant amnesty to millions of those who had entered the U.S. illegally. In his run for re-election in 1984, Reagan was quite forthright in saying he had embraced amnesty.


RONALD REAGAN: But it is true our borders are out of control. It is also true that this has been a situation on our borders back through a number of administrations. And I supported this bill. I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally.

ELVING: Johnson and Reagan were able to work with both parties and with the factions within their own parties to fashion these landmark bills. Their successors in the White House have found the issue more vexing. President Bill Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union Address, had this to say on the subject.


BILL CLINTON: We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years. And we must do more to stop it.


ELVING: The next President George W. Bush was a Republican but far friendlier to immigration than many in his party. In 2007, he backed a comprehensive effort to overhaul the immigration laws, a measure supported by more Democrats in Congress than Republicans.

GEORGE W BUSH: We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty.


BUSH: Convictions run deep in his capital when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil and conclusive debate so that you can pass and I can sign comprehensive immigration reform into law.


ELVING: But Congress did not put such a bill on President Bush's desk. President Barack Obama came to office promising action where his predecessor had fallen short. And in 2012, he issued an executive order deferring deportation for those sometimes called the DREAMers, individuals brought to the U.S. as children. It was called D.A.C.A or DACA, an acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But Obama wanted something more comprehensive than that, something enshrined in law. And he outlined his goals.


BARACK OBAMA: To mend our nation's immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient and more just.

ELVING: But the resulting bill produced by the so-called Gang of Eight in the Senate could not reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. So Obama issued a series of executive orders attempting to allow certain immigrants to stay in the U.S. if they, quote, "came out of the shadows," unquote. Which brings us to President Trump, who in August announced a plan to emphasize skills and other assets that immigrants might bring with them that would qualify the new entrants, reversing more than 50 years of policy emphasis on family connections.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As a candidate, I campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system that protects U.S. workers and taxpayers. And that is why we are here today - merit-based.

ELVING: Then Trump announced that DACA would end in March 2018 and called on Congress to address the situation by legislation. Some in Congress hope not only to preserve Daka but to enact that comprehensive overhaul of immigration policy that has eluded lawmakers and presidents since Reagan. But the prospects for bipartisan action may be bleaker today than at any time in those three decades. I'm Ron Elving, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO SONG, "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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