Look Back in Time – 25 Years Since Passage of IRCA

November 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

History is a reminder of where and how far we have come with the changes of time. It was 25 years ago on November 6, 1986 when former president Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act. This piece of legislation was known for its three key components, referred by the bill’s sponsors as the “three-legged stool”: (1) tougher border enforcement; (2) penalties for employers who hired unauthorized immigrants; and (3) legalization for unauthorized immigrants who had been in the US for five years or more. This last leg came to be commonly known as an amnesty to unauthorized immigrants and at the time was presented as one-time fix to end the problem of illegal immigration. Additionally, IRCA’s enforcement provisions became a precursor to the modern-day culture of tough border control and state-sanctioned E-Verify programs. IRCA brought to an end the previous laissez-faire culture and into focus the need for border security and to establish penalties for employers who hired unauthorized immigrants. Analysts have criticized that IRCA actually helped spur more illegal immigration. The five-year gap between the qualifying date and the date of the law’s enactment left many settled immigrants in the country without status, and critics charged that the law increased the incentive for people to migrate in hopes of future amnesties. The law also led directly to longer queues for family-sponsored immigrants to gain permanent resident status, as IRCA beneficiaries rushed to petition for eligible family members through the normal immigration process. The longer waits — some as long as ten years — may have spurred increased illegal immigration. The law continues to be controversial, but its effects have been far-reaching. The law’s provisions on immigration enforcement and employer verification are still in force and have been the basis of ongoing immigration debates. Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform also examine IRCA’s successes and failures in order to propose new changes. Perhaps the most significant broad lesson from IRCA is the particular political environment and culture in which the law passed. Despite its many near-death moments, the law was the product of strong bipartisan support in the two houses of Congress at a time of divided government, with a Republican president, GOP Senate, and Democratic House. Senior leaders on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress became its champions, and the president was able to persuade reluctant legislators in both parties to vote for it. The notable absence of these factors today may be one reason why proponents of a new “comprehensive immigration reform” bill have found the atmosphere for such a bill’s passage far less promising during the 112th Congress than it was during the 99th.


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