President Ronald Reagan on Illegal Immigrants: Just the Facts

Monday, November 24, 2014
President Ronald Reagan

“Illegal immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our work force. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.”

President Ronald Reagan

July 30, 1981


Since President Barack Obama announced that he was going to announce executive action related to undocumented immigrants, there has been confusion about whether Ronald Reagan, when he was president of the United States, also took action to help immigrants without going through Congress.


On November 6, 1986, Reagan signed into law a bipartisan bill that created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before 1982 and had lived in the country continuously ever since. The path began with becoming temporary residents and then permanent residents if they could prove “minimal understanding” of English and some knowledge of U.S. history and government. After five years they could apply for citizenship.


This policy was enacted in a normal way: it was passed by both houses of Congress and then signed by the president of the United States. However, on October 22, 1987, without going through Congress, and acting instead through Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization Alan Nelson, Reagan expanded the amnesty to protect from deportation the undocumented children of parents who qualified under the 1986 law, and added to the path to citizenship immigrants who left the country and then returned using fraudulent documents.

-David Wallechinsky


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