Perspective: The Reagan Legacy on Refugees

In Ronald Reagan’s first year in office (1981), he faced the enormous task of handling two of the greatest refugee crises our government has ever faced.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift brought almost 125,000 Cuban refugees to the United States, while continued pressures of the Indochina refugee crisis were continuing from America’s departure from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon in 1975 — as well as the Khmer Rouge genocides in Cambodia.

Over 3 million Indochina refugees challenged the western world’s ability to absorb immigrants–with over 1.2 million eventually arriving in the United States.

In many ways, Reagan was left with the problems of previous administrations and had to come up with feasible solutions to the refugee crises in America.

Instead of rejecting the previous administration’s actions, Reagan developed a new strategy that would:

“…continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.” – Ronald Reagan, July 1981

Key to his plan was:

  • Ensuring that immigrants and refugees were subject to the rule of law;
  • Penalizing companies intentionally violating immigration laws;
  • Recognizing that immigration, especially from Canada and Mexico, benefits our economy;
  • Amnesty for those illegal immigrants who have a proven history of productivity in the workforce;
  • Using the federal government’s authority to equitably distribute refugees to the various states;
  • Improving amalgamation while reducing welfare dependency; and
  • Improving foreign policy to lessen the probability of future international crises causing mass refugee influxes.

Did it work?

Not as expected, and with a lot of similarities to today’s problems and concerns.

Some state governors were exceedingly vocal about taking the refugees, among them future president Bill Clinton.

Crime was seen as an incredible problem with the refugees from Indochina, with the second and third generation still the largest bloc of criminal offenders in California.

Welfare is even worse, and still plagues us today, with Cuban refugees still costing the American taxpayer over $680 million in welfare benefits. Many of these recipients have never worked since entering.

These two groups of refugees have become the worst offenders when it comes to amalgamation, with second and third generation children often not knowing basic English skills — ESL careers are still booming in teaching English to those from Indochina.

Reagan’s program, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, gave amnesty to over 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, causing an explosion in illegal immigration because of mixed signals coming from the federal government.

But the worst aspect is the lack of reasonable changes to the law, with Cuban refugees still eligible under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Lessons for 2015 and Beyond

Sidestepping the entire issue of terrorism, amalgamation is the main question that needs to be answered when considering new refugees into the United States.

If the European powers have learned anything in the past three decades, it is that Islamic immigrants have been outright resistant to amalgamation, sparking laws such as the French ban on full-faced veils in public.

The true legacy left by the Reagan refugee response is that it is almost impossible to ‘force’ amalgamation on a reluctant group, something we need to be keenly aware of when dealing with groups practicing (on some level or another) Sharia law, female genital mutilation, and/or religious extremist tolerance.

Amalgamation is the only answer to curbing the possibility of bringing extremist views and behavior into the United States.