Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

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The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was a bill that made it illegal for employers to hire, recruit, or refer immigrants without proper identification, or to "continue to employ an alien knowing that such person is unauthorized to work." [1] The act also allocated funds to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and the Executive Office of Immigration Review. [1] Furthermore, it provided amnesty for immigrants who could prove they had been living in the country without legal approval continuously since January 1, 1982.

It was signed by President Ronald Reagan on November 6, 1986. It is also referred to as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Romano L. Mazzoli was a Democratic representative from Kentucky. Alan K. Simpson was a Republican Senator from Wyoming. [2]

Statistics and Effects


  • In 2000, only 1.5% of elementary schoolchildren (kindergarten through 5th grade) and 3% of secondary children (grades 6-12) were undocumented immigrants.[3]
  • In 2002, 9.3 million (26%) of the foreign-born population were undocumented immigrants.[4]
  • In 2006, according to the US Census Bureau's American Community Survey, there were 37,547,789 foreign-born in the United States, which represents 12.5% percent of the total US population.[5]
  • Out of the 37,547,789 foreign born, 47.2% reported to be Hispanic or Latino origins.[5]

Labor Force

  • In 2003, over 90% of undocumented men worked which was a higher rate than U.S. citizens or legal immigrants.[3]
  • In 2006, out of the 151.1 million US labor force, the foreign-born accounted for 23.6 million (15.6%).[5]
  • In 2006, out of the 22.2 million civilian employed foreign-born age 16 and older, 27.2 percent worked in management, professional, and related occupations; 22.5 percent in service occupations; 18.3 percent in sales and office occupations; 16.7 percent in production and transportation; and 13.5 percent in construction, extraction, maintenance, and repair occupations.[5]
  • In 2006, according to the Current Population Survey (CPS), 1.9 million (8.5%) foreign-born workers were members of labor unions which accounted for 12.3% of the total union members.[5]
  • In 2006, 52.4% foreign-born persons age 5 and older were limited English proficient (LEP). Those who are not fluent in English are considered LEP.[5]


  • Because the undocumented immigrants are a large part of our labor force, if enough of them left, they would create an effect of having a “ghost country.” The "ghost country" effect is when there aren't enough people in the area for the economy to sustain itself.[6]
  • Niches are formed in certain areas because of the “family and friends” effect. This effect brings forth a stream of immigrants to where they their family and friends are successful, thus, allowing these immigrants to specialize in certain fields.[7]
  • Additional workers, such as illegal immigrants, will create new jobs because there will be an increase in spending. In economics terms, an increase in GDP will create new jobs because there is more money in the economy.[6]

Political Rhetoric

Opponents of the bill of the time believed it didn't take certain aspects of immigration into consideration, like why people immigrated to this country. There are "push" and "pull" factors to immigration, and since the United States has needed agricultural labor, supplied by Mexico from the early 1920s to the present, they thought it unfair to curtail this immigration. Another reason for immigration is directed toward political refugees because the bill does not show lenience to them. They must "assert some 'reasonable basis' for legal entry or apply for asylum within fourteen days after the issuance of an order to show cause why they should not be deported." [8] Immigration policies exist for a reason, whether to keep people out or let people in.

Opponents believed the IRCA was unjust because of the people they targeted. Some people believe the IRCA has actually increased discrimination. Discriminatory practices have been observed, as some employers check potential employees who look foreign or have "foreign-sounding" names. [9] In some cases, attorneys believe that the IRCA has encouraged employers to hire "immigrants so desperate for work that they will accept increasingly substandard wages and working conditions." [10]


One of the more controversial provisions of IRCA was the bill’s amnesty provision, which allowed for people who had resided in the United States illegally, since before January 1, 1982. The largest portion of the almost three million immigrants who eventually applied for amnesty came from the South West. In the mid 1980’s, there were many concerns being voiced against any sort of amnesty provision. One concern, voiced by Carl Hampe of the Population Reference Bureau, was fairness. He referred to all the immigrants who enter the country legally, taking time to file appropriate documents, and waiting for the necessary approvals. "When one considers that 1.8 million souls around the world are playing by the rules… isn’t it wickedly unfair to make them wait while millions of others crash our borders to reap the good life?"[11] Other opponents of the amnesty provision feared that granting amnesty once, would lead to an increase in illegal immigration to the United States, with people entering the country in hopes that amnesty would be granted again at some time in the future. The arguments that IRCA would encourage illegal immigration were countered by arguments that the increased penalties for employing illegal immigrants would discourage people seeking economic opportunity. Amnesty was strongly supported from a human rights perspective. William Sking Jr., a former Border Patrol Chief in El Centro praised the amnesty provision. He said that immigration policy in the United States had created a "subclass of people" who would work for lower wages, and who could be preyed on by thieves and rapists because they would be too afraid to report crimes against them to the police. "It’s a horrendous thing we’ve done. It’s strictly economic slavery that we’ve watched develop." [12] Once the bill was passed there were concerns about the requirements for amnesty. First of all, the bill did not extend amnesty to ineligible spouses. So, if a husband had come to the United States on, or before January 1, 1982, and his wife joined him after that date, he would be eligible for citizenship, while she would not. Another question was how applicants for amnesty would prove their residency. Peter Schey, a Los Angeles immigration advocate said, "Illegal aliens don't leave a paper trail. [The] INS is treating these people as if they were IBM executives with resumes in their back pockets." [13] After the bill was passed, there were also reports of illegal immigrants being offered fraudulent paperwork to help them prove residency. The Assistant Attorney General of Texas, La Monte Freerks claimed "the new law is a growth industry in rip offs." [13]

Effects on American Business

Many saw IRCA’s provisions, levying fines on employers who hired illegal immigrants as a transfer of responsibility for immigration enforcement from the INS, to the American business community. Employers were required to obtain proof of a prospective employee’s right to work in the United States, such as a visa birth certificate or passport, and to fill out an I-9 form for all employees. It was believed that by discouraging American businesses from giving jobs to illegal immigrants citizens of other countries would see less incentive to come to America illegally. However, the general sentiment amongst illegal immigrants seemed to be that they would still be able to find jobs, employers would just use the fines threatened by IRCA as a reason to pay them less. Hispanic Americans and other Latin Americans legally residing in America feared that the bill would lead to job discrimination for them. A fear of labor shortages was also spawned by the bill, especially in regards to farm labor. Farms depended on large pools of labor to harvest crops. There was a fear that IRCA would limit migrant workers coming in to the United States, and also, that once people who had worked in the fields previous years obtained citizenship, they would demand wages too high for farmers to pay. The extra paperwork also posed a problem for farmers. Ed Angstadt, President of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of Central California suggested that the need to obtain a large workforce quickly, could over rule farmer's fear of fines. [13]

Criticisms of Legal Immigration in the United States

When Congress posed immigration legislation in the 1980's, one of the questions it posed was whether or not there was actually anything wrong with the, then current, immigration policy. While some raised the question, as to why "nothing has been done to get control of the illegal immigration nightmare in this country." [14] Other sources questioned why, in the bill's roughly six years in Congress, it never received overwhelming support from states like Florida or California, where there are large numbers of illegal immigrant, and rather, the bill was sponsored by Senators from Wyoming and Kentucky [15]. While raising questions about how to deal with illegal immigration, IRCA also posed questions about the United States' policies for legal immigration. Carl Hampe, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau questioned the United States' responsibility towards developing countries. He noted that the United States, in 1985, accepted 1% of the developing world's population growth, as legal immigrants [14], suggesting that, in order to provide people with opportunity, America had a responsibility to allow more immigration. The ACLU also favored more open immigration policies.

IRCA and Today

Opinions about immigration reform are still as wide-ranging today as they were in 1986. Then, Congress debated how to "best secure America's borders, enforce our immigration laws at the workplace, and bring out of the shadows millions of illegal immigrants living and working within this country." [16] Today, those debates remain. The authors of the IRCA, Simpson and Mazzoli, evaluated the act twenty years after it was passed and believed the issues remained the same: "controlling illegal entry, the question of what to do with existing undocumented, illegal immigrants, and guest worker programs." [2] They expected the act to be a "three-legged stool" with three purposes: to curtail illegal immigration, to provide personnel for labor-scarce markets, and to give a chance for undocumented citizens to earn legal status. [2] Those expectations remain the same as immigration continues to be a hot topic.

Amnesty was the most popular part of the bill, and border enforcement was tightened, particularly after the "1993 World Trade Center bombing, successive Cuban and Haitian boat emergencies, the anti-immigrant gubernatorial campaign of California Governor Pete Wilson, that state's successful Proposition 187 drive, and the North American Free Trade Agreement with its hope of accelerated job creation in Mexico." [17] However, enforcement of hiring legal immigrants has been lacking. There hasn't been a consistent program to prove legal availability to work and has the potential to increase discriminatory practices. A pilot program has been created to "find mismatches between I-9 forms, Social Security data, and Department of Homeland Security records in order to hunt down workers using false documents," but it also has many administrative problems, such as spell-check.[9] Also, "more than two dozen different kinds of existing documents were permitted" as proof.[17] In addition, "most of the documents that were allowed were easy to counterfeit."[17] For these reasons, the IRCA has been seen generally as a failure, but has improved some aspects of immigration reform.

Articles and Resources

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 THOMAS (Library of Congress), "Search Results - THOMAS (Library of Congress)".
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Romano L. Mazzoli and Alan K. Simpson, "Enacting Immigration Reform, Again" Washington Post, September 15, 2006.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Randolph Capps and Michael E. Fix, "Undocumented Immigrants" Urban Institute, November 1, 2005.
  4. Jeffrey S. Passel, Randy Capps and Michael Fix, "Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures" Urban Institute Immigration Studies Program, January 12, 2008.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Aaron Terraza, Jeanne Batalova and Velma Fan, "Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants in the United States" Migration Policy Institute, October 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Michael Mandel, "Bordering on Absurdity" BusinessWeek, May 26, 2006.
  7. Katharine M. Donato, Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey, "Stemming the Tide? Assessing the Deterrent Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act *" Population Association of America, May 1992.
  8. Geoffrey Rips "Supply-Side Immigration Reform" The Nation, October 8, 1983.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Annie Decker, "Aligning Immigration and Workplace Law, One Step at a Time" The Yale Law Journal, May 1, 2006.
  10. Hector Tobar "No Rights for Migrant Workers" The Nation, September 9, 1988.
  11. Mc Laughlin, John. "Immigration Bill." National Review 37.20 (1985) p. 19
  12. Matthews, Jay. "Awaiting a Deluge at the INS." Washington Post March 10, 1987.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Stengel, Richard. "Out of the Shadows" Time Magazine May 4, 1987.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Mc Laughlin, John. "Immigration Reform" National Review. 37.20 p. 24. 1985.
  15. Bethel, Tom. "A New Statute of Liberty" National Review 18. December, 1987
  16. Senator John Cornyn, "Immigration Reform: Back to the Future" The Yale Law Journal, May 1, 2006.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Doris Meissner, "Learning From History" The American Prospect, October 23, 2005.

External articles

External resources