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The Immigration Reform and Control Act: What It Is, Why It Matters

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By Evan Wyloge

Nov. 6, 1986.

With the stroke of a pen and a round of handshakes, President Ronald Reagan changed millions of lives and reframed immigration policy for decades to come.

Within months, millions of undocumented immigrants became eligible for legal status. Combining this “amnesty” with tighter border enforcement and employer sanctions, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 promised to fix what was widely considered a broken immigration system.

The bill had three main parts:

  • Employer Sanctions: The bill made it illegal to knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, continue to employ undocumented immigrants or to hire employees without properly checking their identity and employment eligibility.
  • Border Security: The bill specified a 50 percent increase in Border Patrol staffing along the Mexican border.
  • Legalization of Undocumented Immigrants: The bill created two groups of eligible applicants. The first included those who had lived continuously in the United States since before Jan. 1, 1982, and who met other criteria. This group accounted for roughly 1.7 million applications for legalization. The second group, Special Agricultural Workers, was made up of people who could show that they had worked 60 or more days in seasonal agricultural between May 1985 and May 1986. This group ended up totaling 1.3 million, far exceeding the original estimate of 250,000.

Reagan, who had been advocating for a bill for years, called it “the most comprehensive reform of our immigration laws since 1952.”

Although Reagan’s name is most often associated with this sweeping reform, previous administrations set the groundwork for IRCA’s main elements. During his 1972 re-election campaign, President Richard M. Nixon pointed to the hiring of undocumented immigrants as one reason for the creeping unemployment of the early 1970s, and he later made claims that undocumented immigrants put a burden on the nation’s welfare system.

President Gerald R. Ford signed into law the 1976 Immigration Act, which, among other things, reduced the number of Mexicans who could apply for legal immigration. Ford expressed his displeasure with that particular piece of the law, correctly anticipating that this would only increase the illegal entry of Mexican immigrants. He promised to submit legislation that would increase the legal immigration quota by January of the following year, but was unable to do so before President Jimmy Carter took office.

In August 1977, Carter proposed legislation to raise the immigration quota for Mexican immigrants and grant legalization to the undocumented immigrants already living in the country. Congress didn’t move on the proposal but worked with Carter to establish the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy “to study and evaluate the existing laws, policies and procedures governing the admission of immigrants and refugees…” The group’s final report wasn’t ready until March 1981 and was delivered not to Carter, but to the recently inaugurated Reagan.

The report described a population of 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants already living, and most of them working, in the United States. Faced with these numbers, Reagan — perhaps the most iconic free-market champion of the last half century — took the report as proof that the problem was one of free-labor.

In a 1977 radio address, Reagan explained his views on illegal immigration by using the example of apples rotting on the trees of American orchards:

“It makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do? One thing is certain in this hungry world: No regulation or law should be allowed if it results in crops rotting in the fields for lack of harvesters.”

Armed with the 1981 study, Reagan began pushing for broad immigration reform in a way that previous administrations had not been able.

Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., and Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli, D-Ky., wrote, revised and re-wrote what eventually became the IRCA bill. The first version of the bill was introduced in 1982, but took years of tinkering to gain enough votes to pass Congress.

The final Senate vote was 63-24, with support split fairly evenly between Democrats and Republicans. This is in contrast to more recent immigration reform votes.

“Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts,” Reagan said at the bill’s signing.

Six months later, applications for legalization began pouring in.  In the months and years to follow, the landmark reform measure would be criticized by some as haphazard and careless in its preparation and heralded by others as a humanitarian and free-market triumph.

Reagan’s stance was as clear at the end of his presidency as it was when he signed the bill.

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life,” Reagan said in 1989 as he left office, “but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”

Main | Amnesty In The Land of Enchantment | Amnesty’s Next Front: Small Town USA
IRCA, The First Amnesty: What It Is, Why It Matters | What’s Next in the Amnesty Debate?