Flashback: Reid Pushed Limiting Legal Immigration, Ending Illegal Immigration in 1990s

In the early 1990s, Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) proposed a piece of legislation that would have cut legal immigration significantly to protect against what he claimed was a serious threat to American workers’ jobs.

Reid laid out the plan in an Aug. 10, 1994 op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. “The federal government has been grossly irresponsible in its neglect of mounting immigration problems, even as these problems place unbearable burdens on states like California,” Reid wrote at the time. “It is regrettable that states have reached a point where the only avenue they have for justice is the courts. It is even more regrettable that this Administration and this Congress stand by and allow the federal courts to decide the nation's immigration policies.”

“Taxpayers simply cannot continue to sustain new populations the size of San Diego or the state of Nevada every year,” Reid wrote, adding:

California is sending up the red flag tat [sic] Washington should heed. Unprecedented demands are being placed on job markets, schools, hospitals, police, social safety nets, infrastructure and natural resources. Unlimited new arrivals pressuring these systems threaten to overwhelm them.

Reid argued at the time, as people like Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) argue now, that only immigrants that the U.S. can actually fiscally sustain should be allowed into the country. In fact, the concerns Reid laid out in this 1994 op-ed are nearly identical to concerns 16 House Republicans, led by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), expressed about certain immigration policies' effects on American workers in a Wednesday letter to President Barack Obama. 

“Our doors should remain open, but only wide enough to admit those to whom we can realistically offer opportunity and security,” Reid wrote. “To leave the door unguarded is to create an environment in which no one can live securely and peacefully. And so I am sponsoring a bill in the Senate to reduce immigration-legal and illegal.”

“Most politicians agree that illegal immigration should end,” Reid wrote. “My legislation would double border patrols and accelerate the deportation process for criminals and illegal entrants.”

Reid wrote that “many lawmakers,” in his opinion at the time, thought that “lowering legal immigration is too dicey.” He called such a position “a cop-out.”

“My legislation calls for a reduction of legal immigrants from the current level of about 1 million admissions a year to approximately 325,000,” Reid wrote. “Even that more realistic level means 25,000 newcomers entering every month, looking for jobs, housing and education.”

Reid noted that Rev. Jesse Jackson implored that he not push a plan reducing both legal and illegal immigration, saying that Jackson told him then that there were “moral implications” to what he had proposed. “I did, and found the moral imperative on Congress and the President to enact change, quickly,” Reid wrote. 

“Americans have sat freely around a bountiful dinner table. Now, the table is becoming overcrowded," he explained. "People are squeezing in and elbowing each other to get what they want. Unless changes are made, our dinner table eventually will collapse, and no one will have security and opportunity.”

“Opponents of immigration reform cry racism or point toward our historic role as a nation of immigrants,” Reid wrote. “Charges of racial bias are unfounded. Unlike anything proposed before, my Immigration Stabilization Act explicitly prohibits discrimination in refugee admissions.”

Reid concluded by pointing out that if ending illegal immigration and lowering legal immigration levels did not occur, Americans would suffer later.

“The real injustice to future Americans would be to do nothing,” he wrote. “America is proud of its immigrant tradition. This tradition should be reconciled with our responsibility to create a better country in which to live. If we do not take responsible steps today, we will be forced to take radical and sadly preventable action only a decade from now.”

Reid has obviously flip-flopped from that earlier position. The Senate-passed “Gang of Eight” immigration bill from 2013 would increase legal immigration levels and does nothing to curb illegal immigration. 

PolitiFact reported in 2010 that in 1999 and again in 2006, Reid said he considered his 1993 bill to be “way up high” on his “list of mistakes” and a “low point” in his career.


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