The Clinton Administration: When Deportations Were Considered Essential for Credible Immigration Policy

By Jerry Kammer on July 15, 2019

[Editor's note: This post is an excerpt from a forthcoming Center for Immigration Studies book on the failure of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.]

Just before the 1996 presidential election, the Clinton White House held a press briefing to boast about record numbers of deportations of illegal immigrants. The principal spokesperson for the administration was Doris Meissner, Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "I am proud once again to announce that the Clinton administration's determination to remove criminal aliens and other deportable aliens from the United States has produced record results," said Meissner.

Meissner, a Clinton appointee, said 67,094 illegal immigrants – criminal and non-criminal – had been deported in the 1995 fiscal year. In a dutiful tribute to Clinton that echoed statements from the White House and the Justice Department, she contrasted his performance to that of his predecessors. "For too many years, under-enforcement of our nation's immigration laws undermined their credibility," she said. "But this administration's unprecedented expansion of and support for strong but fair enforcement of immigration laws…is restoring that credibility."

In another bow to Clinton's leadership, Meissner declared that the INS "means business when it comes to enforcing immigration laws in the workplace." That echoed language Clinton had used the day after Patrick Buchanan's surprising second-place finish in the 1996 Iowa caucuses, when he issued an executive order barring companies that had knowingly hired unauthorized workers from receiving government contracts. "American jobs belong to America's legal workers," Clinton said. "This executive order will make clear that when it comes to enforcing our nation's immigration laws, we mean business. We are determined to restore the rule of law to our nation's immigration system."

A day earlier, INS agents had arrested 20 Mexicans and Hondurans at the construction site for a $200 million federal office building directly across from the INS offices in Atlanta. Four days before that, agents arrested 22 Mexicans working at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, where they were employed by companies that had received federal contracts worth $37 million.