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Duke professor: Immigration reform more symbolic than factual

Posted June 26, 2016 6:56 p.m. EDT

— Immigration reform has become a talking point for many politicians in recent elections, from Donald Trump's vow to have Mexico pay for a wall along the southern U.S. border to others working to allow millions in the country illegally to stay here.

President Barack Obama was dealt a setback last week when a deadlocked Supreme Court effectively ended his executive orders to expand delayed deportation actions to about 4 million undocumented immigrants.

"One of the problems is that so much of it is about symbol rather than facts, and that's frustrating as a historian," Gunther Peck, an associate professor of history at Duke University, said of immigration reform efforts.

The last comprehensive immigration reform occurred three decades ago under President Ronald Reagan.

"One of the most interesting things to learn from that '86 debate is that the Republicans, the most popular Republican president in the post-war period was a pro-immigration president," Peck said.

"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 when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave millions of immigrants legal status.

"Amnesty did not solve the problem of undocumented immigration," Peck said. "Believe it or not, that was the promise, that if you let all these people in, we'll fix the problem once and for all."

Recent studies show illegal immigration is on the decline, with more people leaving the U.S. for Mexico than the other way around.

Still, Peck said, U.S. attitudes toward immigrants have hardened in recent years.

"We've had a kind of resurgence of isolationism," he said. "In the context of a global war on terror, post 9/11, immigrants have been hurt by that as well."