WASHINGTON — President Reagan, signing into law the most sweeping immigration reform in more than 30 years, expressed hope today that the measure will preserve "one of the most sacred possessions of our people--American citizenship."
Millions of illegal aliens may become eligible to remain in the United States legally under the act, approved in the waning days of the 99th Congress after years of political wrangling.
But sponsors of the measure have expressed fears that the complex law may trigger an administrative nightmare.
Reagan, before signing the measure, noted that illegal immigration "should not . . . be seen as a problem between the United States and its neighbors."
"Our objective is only to establish a reasonable, fair and orderly and secure system of immigration into this country and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people," Reagan added.
Fear of Discrimination
Some opponents of the measure had argued that the bill would prompt widespread discrimination against such groups as Latinos.
With nearly two dozen lawmakers and Administration officials standing behind him, Reagan used four pens to sign the two-inch thick bill during a brief ceremony in the Roosevelt Room.
"Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people--American citizenship," Reagan said.
After signing the measure, Reagan rose from his chair and quipped, "I got my names in the right order there," a reference to when he signed his last name first to tax overhaul legislation last month.
For aliens who have been living in the United States illegally since before 1982, the bill contains an amnesty provision that will enable them to obtain temporary legal residency. That can be converted to permanent residency status after 18 months for those who can demonstrate a minimal understanding of English and some knowledge of U.S. history and government.
'Step Into the Sunlight'
Officials do not know how many people will fit in that category but expect several million applications.
The bill will "go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows; without access to any of the benefits of a free and open society," Reagan said. "Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and ultimately, if they choose, they may become Americans."
Under the measure, the government changes hiring practices across the country by requiring all employers to verify that newly hired employees are legal U.S. residents.
And those caught hiring illegal aliens will be subject to tough new penalties--a system of civil fines and criminal prosecutions that could result in prison terms for habitual offenders.
Officials must also administer a new program for thousands of migrant foreign workers who enter the country to harvest perishable fruits and vegetables.