After the Amnesty: 20 years later
In 1986, the US government offered amnesty – legal status – to 3 million illegal immigrants. Here are seven of their stories.
Twenty years ago Monday, Congress passed the largest effort to date to curb undocumented immigration to this country. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), employers were sanctioned for the first time for hiring undocumented workers. The bill also called for tighter controls along the Mexican border. But the bill was a compromise: Enforcement was balanced by an amnesty provision.Skip to next paragraph
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Under IRCA, undocumented immigrants who had lived in the United States prior to 1982 and those who had worked as seasonal agricultural workers before May 1986 could seek legal status and eventually US citizenship.
Nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants were granted legal residence under the amnesty. Most of them were Mexican (more than 80 percent) and lived in the Los Angeles area. Salvadorans, Filipinos, Haitians, Poles, and Vietnamese also benefited from the program.
But two decades later, illegal immigration is still a hot-button issue and amnesty is a dirty word to some. Private-citizen minutemen and National Guardsmen have rushed to the Mexican border. This spring, millions of undocumented immigrants and others marched in the streets of US cities to protest federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants.
It's an issue that may reignite if a new Congress picks up the debate this coming January.
Amid the shouts of today are decades-old echoes from the IRCA.
Critics say the bill set a damaging precedent for future amnesties. IRCA supporters say the word "amnesty" mischaracterizes the bill's intent.
"An amnesty cleans people who have broken the law," says former US Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky. He and former US Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming were the primary architects and cosponsors of IRCA. "But in our bill, you had to prove that you were a law-abiding person who honored the institutions of our country.... So you can take your pick of euphemisms, but if you use the word 'amnesty,' people will get angry, throw their hands up in the air, and scream: 'They're rewarding people for misbehaving!' "
Today Mr. Mazzoli defends the bill as the best way to combat illegal immigration at the time. The six administrations that followed, he says, are to blame for not enforcing tighter restrictions. And now, "It's déjà vu all over again," Mazzoli says. "These are the same issues that we had 20 years ago."
William King Jr., was the Western regional director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and responsible for carrying out the amnesty program. He says that he had hope that the legislation would work at first. But IRCA was a three-legged stool, he says. One leg was employer sanctions, another was increased border security, and the third was the amnesty program. "In truth, only the amnesty program became a fact," he says, and the effort failed.
To John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that wants tighter immigration controls, IRCA was well intentioned – but implementation was lacking. "There was a half-hearted attempt at immigration control by the late '80s and early '90s by the old INS," he says, but political pressure brought that to a "screeching halt" by the middle of the decade.
One of the big problems with the IRCA amnesty was all the counterfeit applications, especially from seasonal agricultural workers. Economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny studied the effects of amnesty programs on undocumented immigration and presented their findings in the August 2003 issue of Demography magazine. They say that the number of seasonal workers qualifying for amnesty was about 300,000. But in the end, more than 1 million applications were granted. "Most people agree that there was substantial fraud because the document requirement and the residency requirement were quite low for that part of the program," Ms. Zavodny says.
"I don't think anyone says that it deterred illegal immigration," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group. "But it succeeded in legalizing 3 million people. Their wages went up, and they're fully integrated into American society."