border politics

The Mexican Exclusionary Act of 1996


During the State of the Union Address, the president said that America cannot “permit the kind of abuse of our immigration system laws as we have seen in recent years.” He went on to say that his administration “has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, and by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.” This was not Donald J. Trump. It was Democrat Bill Clinton on January 24, 1995, as he delivered his State of the Union Address.

Clinton went on to say that undocumented immigrants “impose burdens on our taxpayers.” He went on to blame undocumented immigrants for taking jobs from “citizens or legal immigrants.” Today, some Republicans are arguing that Democrats aren’t interested in all immigrants, just the ones that vote Democrat, alluding to the recent call by the Biden administration telling Cuban and Haitians not to make the trip across the ocean to America in light of the recent turmoil in Cuba and in Haiti. Clinton governed over one of the largest detentions of immigrants at Guantanamo Bay, most of them from Cuba and Haiti.

Seldom discussed in the immigration rhetoric is the reason that there is an immigration crisis today. Not a border crisis, but an immigrant crisis, exacerbated by Trump but made possible by Bill Clinton. Both Clinton and Trump are to blame for today’s immigration chaos.

It started with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) which has been dubbed “The Mexican Exclusionary Act of 1996” because its provisions targeted Mexican immigrants. If you Google the term, you will note that the results resolve to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, its official name.

The IIRAIRA, signed into law by Bill Clinton, created the framework from which child separations were codified into America’s legal framework and how undocumented immigrants suddenly became criminals. The law imposed criminal penalties to certain immigration violations and allowed for increasing deportations of immigrants who commit misdemeanors or a felony.

Among the criminal penalties that the law created was the requirement that the government hold more immigrants in detention centers before deporting them. This provision made family separations possible. The law also allowed the government to deport legal immigrants for any crime they committed, even allowing deportation retroactively for past crimes that were not normally deportable prior to the law.

The law also increased the number of Border Patrol agents. It also called for installing barriers (wall) on the U.S.-México border. It also encouraged immigration enforcement in the interior of the U.S. leading to a spike in workplace deportation raids. All the things that Bill Clinton argued for in 1995.

The Bill was introduced by C. W. Bill (R-FL) at the House on June 11, 1996. It passed the House on June 13, 1996, on a vote of 278 in favor and 126 against it. Thirty members did not vote on the House bill, 12 Republicans and 18 Democrats. Those voting for the House Bill included 88 Democrats.

In 1996, El Paso’s 16th Congressional District Representative was Ronald D. Coleman (D-TX). Coleman voted in favor the House Bill. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) represented the 23rd Congressional District. Bonilla also voted for the House legislation.

The Senate version of the Bill passed on July 18, 1996, on a 72 to 27 vote as part of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act, 1997 (HR 3610). Both Texas Senators, Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) voted for the law. In total 23 Democrats voted in favor of the Bill. Three Republicans voted against the Bill. One Democrat did not cast a vote.

On September 28, 1996, the House agreed to the joint conference committee consolidating the Senate version with the House on a 370 to 37 vote. Ronald Coleman (R-TX16) voted against the committee’s resolution. The Senate adopted the joint version on a voice vote on September 30, 1996.

Bill Clinton (D) signed the Bill into law on September 30, 1996.

In addition to the enhanced criminal penalties the law also empowered states to deny driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

E-Verify, the federal framework allowing employers to verify the work status of their employees, was also established in 1996.

The 1996 law was implemented ten years after Ronald Regan (R) signed the last substantial immigration reform bill in 1986. Reagan provided a pathway to millions of undocumented immigrants, the vast majority from México. Clinton’s 1996 law, on the other hand, imposed economic hardships on Mexican immigrants by applying ten-year financial requirements based on the federal poverty line for U.S. citizens and legal residents who wanted to sponsor foreign family members for immigration. Along with the enhanced immigration laws, it made it more difficult for immigrants to come to America.

Today, it is the Democrats that want to provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants.

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