Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986: Everything You Need to Know
This legislation was meant to change and improve/re-assess the status of unauthorized immigrants set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act.8 min read
1951 President’s Commission on Migratory Labor
In 1951 the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor condemned the dismal living conditions of illegal immigrants who were working as migrant farm workers in the United States.
During this time, those workers were discovered to be living in orchards and irrigation ditches. Migrants lived in fear of being apprehended like fugitives and were often exploited by their employers. They maintained unsafe working conditions, experienced split wages, and employers would suddenly dismiss migrants with little fear of reprisal.
The commission estimated that 40 percent of the migrants in the United States or at least 400,000 people were illegal immigrants. They said that the only way to stop the flow of illegals was to impose harsh punishments on businesses that employed and exploited migrants.
The commission suggested fines, imprisonment, and a strict prohibition of interstate commerce in any goods produced or harvested by illegal immigrants. Congress ignored the commission’s recommendations, and for the next 20 years being an illegal immigrant was a crime in the United States, but it was not a crime to employ an illegal immigrant.
The creation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act
In the 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 Nixon 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 lowered the number of Mexicans that could apply for legal immigration. Then, in August 1977, President Jimmy Carter proposed legislation to raise the immigration quota for Mexican immigrants and legalize the undocumented immigrants who were living in the country already.
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 President Reagan. The report said that 3 to 5 million undocumented immigrants were living and working in the United States already.
Reagan, 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 speech, Reagan explained his views on illegal immigration using the example of apples rotting on the trees of American orchards. He said:
“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.”
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. Six months after that, legalization applications flowed in. For months and years after, the landmark reform measure was criticized as being haphazard and careless. It was called by others to be a humanitarian and free-market triumph.
1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a.k.a. The Simpson-Mazzoli Act
Also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act that revised and reformed existing immigration laws, and for other purposes, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed and signed into law on Nov. 6, 1986, by Ronald Raegan.
This legislation was meant to change and improve/re-assess the status of unauthorized immigrants set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The content of the bill is divided into many sections such as control of unauthorized immigration, legalization, and reform of legal immigration. This bill allowed unauthorized aliens a chance to apply and gain legal status if they met some requirements.
The fate or status of all applicants that applied fell into the hands of “Designated Entities” and finally the U.S. Attorney General. The bill also outlined previsions for temporary residents’ travel, employment, false statements, numerical limitations, adjustments for status and treatment of applications by “Designated Entities.” After an applicant was assigned a legal status or deemed a temporary lawful resident, applicants were disqualified from receiving all forms of public welfare assistance for five years.
The rules for applications and welfare assistance did not apply to Cuban or Haitian immigrants.
Applicants had to prove that applicants lived and maintained a continuous physical presence in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 1982, possess a clean criminal record, and provide proof of registration within the Selective Service.
Applicants had to meet minimal knowledge requirements of U.S. history, government and the English language or be pursuing a course of study approved by the Attorney General.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service is responsible for the implementation of law.
All employers are required to verify both the identity and employment eligibility of all regular, temporary employees, temporary agency personnel, and student employees hired after Nov. 6, 1986, and complete and retain a one-page form (INS Form I-9) documenting the verification.
Failure to comply with the law's requirements may result in both civil and criminal liability with the imposition of substantial fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 per hire, as well as possible imprisonment for a pattern or practice of noncompliance.
Failure to verify a new employee’s identity and employment eligibility will result in the termination of employment for that employee.
Scholar Jack Miles for the June 1994 issue of The Atlantic
In an article for The Atlantic, Jack Miles stated that the mass legalization of then-illegal immigrants was traded for the promise that a new program of employer sanctions would destroy the incentive for further mass immigration.
Eric Schlosser, for The Atlantic, “In the Strawberry Fields”
Schlosser said, “these sanctions have rarely been applied,” making the IRCA meaningless.
There are approximately 873,400 private employers in California but only about 200 federal inspectors to investigate workplace violations of the immigration code. The federal penalty for employing illegal immigrants are small, and the first error could result in a fine of $250. The third offense would cost a fine of $3,000.
In response to growers’ fears that the new sanctions on employers would create a shortage of farm workers, Congress included in the bill a special amnesty for illegal immigrants that could prove that immigrants had done farm work in the United States during the previous year; however, Congress did not demand much proof.
The program was expected to grant legal status to 350,000 illegal immigrants.
However, more than 1.3 million illegal immigrants, a number roughly equivalent at the time to a sixth of the adult male population of rural Mexico--applied for an amnesty, most of the immigrants used phony documents that has been called one of the greatest immigration frauds in American history.
The Washington Post’s Emily Badger
Around 2.7 million people received legal status under the IRCA, according to The Washington Post’s Emily Badger.
The Department of Labor sponsored two survey studies following up on several thousand of the IRCA immigrants in 1989 and then again in 1992, five years after the law went into effect.
The studies suggested that immigrants made significant wage gains in the years after legalization and many of the immigrants obtained better jobs.
Government records also revealed over time how many of the immigrants became naturalized citizens.
In 1996, the year the entire IRCA cohort was eligible, a quarter of a million were naturalized, and by 2001, one-third of the entire group had been naturalized.
Reader’s inquiry about immigrant kids
Some research suggests that children of undocumented immigrants are more likely to be poor and in poor health than children of legal parents.
And so, one might reasonably expect the children of immigrants to benefit from the parent's legal status, even if the children were not born until well after any amnesty was given.
Congress tried to fix immigration back in 1986. Why did it fail?
IRCA was supposed to put a stop to illegal immigration into the United States but failed. The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the country soared, from an estimated 5 million in 1986 to 11.1 million in 2013.
Opponents of expanded immigration say that the 1986 bill is proof that amnesty is going to fail every time. Even the bill's main co-sponsors, former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former representative Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) have admitted that "legitimate questions can be raised about the effectiveness of" the law.
What did the 1986 immigration law do?
There was the "amnesty" bit where unauthorized immigrants that had already been living in the United States continuously since 1982 became eligible for temporary legal status, after paying a $185 fee and demonstrating "good moral character."
After 18 months, immigrants could then become eligible for green cards, provided that immigrants learned to speak English.
There was also an enforcement bit where the law aimed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border against illegal crossings with new surveillance technology and a bigger staff.
The bill also imposed penalties on businesses that knowingly hired or employed unauthorized immigrants. Special Agricultural Workers consists of those who can show that they had worked 60 or more days in seasonal agriculture between May 1985 and May 1986. There was a total of 1.3 million, much past the original estimate of 250,000.
How many immigrants took advantage of amnesty?
The law awarded green cards to about 2.7 million immigrants, including about 1 million farm workers. This was the largest legalization program in U.S. history. However, there are still at least 2 million unauthorized immigrants who have not been granted amnesty or green cards and who still work here because many of them didn't qualify for legal status under the law. Many of these immigrants arrived in the United States after 1982.
Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute stated that everyone assumed immigrants would just leave and that the new employer restrictions would push them out.
Why were the employer restrictions so ineffective?
Wayne Cornelius of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at U.C. San Diego explained that the bill's sponsors ended up watering down the sanctions on employers to attract support from the business community.
Under the final law, all employers had to do to avoid sanctions was to make sure employers' workers had paperwork that "reasonably appears on its face to be genuine." If the documents were decent fakes, then it wasn't the manager’s problem. Employers were actually penalized if they scrutinized a worker's nationality too aggressively. Industries such as agriculture, construction, and landscaping often skirted the paperwork rules by relying on contractors and subcontractors.
In California, up to 80 percent of seasonal harvesting is done through contractors, and unauthorized immigrants are thought to make up a massive portion of the workforce.
Why were the border restrictions ineffective?
The bill specified a 50 percent increase in Border Patrol staffing along the Mexican border.
Border restrictions were ineffective since Congress didn't provide enough money to ramp up Border Patrol hiring until the mid-1990s.
As Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey has explained (pdf), the beefed-up Border Patrol ended up driving immigrants away from immigrant's traditional crossing spots near El Paso and San Diego.
Unauthorized immigrants began moving to all parts of the country, rather than staying concentrated in California, Texas, and Illinois.
So the 1986 law didn't work?
A major conceptual flaw in the bill, says Doris Meissner, was that the authors of the bill simply misjudged the high demand for immigrant labor in the United States.
Meissner also states that Congress didn't foresee at the time that employers would want more immigrants in the years ahead.
As a result, the law never set up a good process to provide as many legal immigrants as the labor markets would demand in the years ahead.
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