John Heubusch 2:09 p.m. EDT July 15, 2013

Why the last overhaul failed and what that says for today.

In the heated debate over immigration reform — especially now that House Republicans have decided to ignore the Senate bill and come up with their own plan — the question that might be asked is "What would Ronald Reagan do?"

It's a valid question because the volatile debate over reform today looms like a phoenix rising from the ashes of immigration laws passed during the Reagan presidency.

Looking back at the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, the left clings to only one aspect of the deal: that President Reagan advocated amnesty for those living illegally in the U.S. But in working with Congress, his support for amnesty was clearly a quid pro quo. Amnesty was just one component of a full complement of legal statutes designed to secure the U.S. border, strengthen enforcement procedures and improve the legal immigration system with background checks. It was meant to be a multifaceted solution to tackle a tough problem and, of premier importance, secure our border.

In 1986, our country faced a daunting challenge to reform the entire immigration system. At the time, the international scope of immigration issues confronting the 40th president included Cuban refugees, "boat people" from Southeast Asia, Refuseniks and émigrés from Communist countries, Mexicans residing illegally in pursuit of work and those fleeing Central American unrest.

A sympathetic view

Reagan did not view immigrants as criminals lurking on the fringes of society. He saw them as hard-working folks who sought the opportunity America provided. He was in search of a practical plan to enforce border security, get business and labor communities in agreement, deal with the status of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and prompt Congress into a deal that had eluded it for years.

As history proved, while about 3 million people who had come to the U.S. illegally eventually became legal citizens under the 1986 law, the bill's other measures failed. The reasons? A shortage of congressional funding to enforce the law; lax enforcement procedures at the federal, state and local level; objections by businesses and the agriculture community, which flouted the law in support of their bottom line; and inattentive, overburdened or discouraged enforcement officials.

As the chief of staff at the Labor Department post-Reagan, I watched as the enforcement provisions failed to get off the ground. By the early '90s, the demise of the 1986 law was apparent, and President Reagan's attorney general, Ed Meese, had to admit it was a mistake for the administration to support the bill.

More than 25 years later, the immigration challenges are even greater. The number of undocumented immigrants has exploded from 5 million in 1986 to more than 11 million today. So how do we apply Reagan's initial intent at immigration reform to today's debate?

Make border a priority

Given the failure of the '86 law, there's little doubt he would insist that secure borders would come first. Today's technology — from biometric technology for identification in the workplace to cameras, fences, sensors and airborne surveillance at the border — makes it more possible than ever to guard our borders if the will and funding exist.

What about those who have already crossed the border into our country? One can only speculate. Reagan was a law-and-order president, but as a California governor, he likely would advocate programs to allow temporary workers to come to the U.S. and return home in a verifiable way — a reasonable program consistent with border security and open to the needs and dynamics of our market economy.

In 1977, Reagan complained that the Labor Department "has been making it harder and harder to bring in foreign labor (to harvest crops), insisting that the farmers hire unemployed Americans." But even the Labor Department was having trouble finding Americans willing to do the work. He concluded that "no regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters."

Had he lived to see today's failures that sprung from previous attempts to secure our country's borders, it is difficult to imagine Reagan supporting immigration reform of any stripe that did not absolutely ensure border integrity first. "Trust, but verify," in Reagan's words.

John Heubusch is the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif.