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Cover Story

Immigration reform: What the last 'path to citizenship' did for immigrants

Congress is considering comprehensive immigration reform, including amnesty, work visas, and guest worker programs. What this path to citizenship  could mean for 11 million illegal immigrants can be seen in the 1986 amnesty of 3 million legalized in the last major immigration overhaul.

By Erin SiegalContributor / April 7, 2013

Maria Cobarrubias, an immigration lawyer in Santa Ana, Calif., is one of seven siblings born in the US to illegal immigrants who were legalized in the 1986 amnesty. This look back at the path to citizenship of the last major immigration reform is part of the cover story project in the April 8, 2013 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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San Diego

To some, steering a big yellow bus along the same city route day after day isn't a highly attractive career. But for Angelica Dimas, who illegally crossed the border into the United States from her native Tijuana, Mexico, in 1981, the opportunity to work as a bus driver in San Diego was a dream realized.

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"I was so excited, so happy," she recalls, her voice tinged with pride. "I loved driving buses."

Initially, like countless other undocumented immigrants, Ms. Dimas worked below the legal radar, cleaning houses when she arrived in California at age 17. But five short years and many waxed floors later, when then-President Reagan passed the nation's first comprehensive immigration reform, Dimas filed an application to legalize her status. Along with her green card came the ability to finally get a driver's license, a bank account, a credit line – and the chance to get better jobs.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) included sanctions for employers who knowingly hired – and sometimes exploited – a workforce without papers. But it quickly became known for the provision that transformed the lives of millions: la amnestía, amnesty.

Between 3 million and 5 million undocumented immigrants were estimated to be living in the US when IRCA passed. The legislation outlined two classes of possible recipients: those who'd lived in the US before 1982 and those who worked in seasonal agricultural jobs.

Three million applied, and 2.7 million were accepted, ascending the first step toward US citizenship: temporary legal status.

Congress is now exploring options for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in a broader comprehensive reform effort expected to be taken up the week of April 8. Provisions under discussion reportedly include a new guest-worker visa category and special treatment for agricultural workers. And discussions have focused on mandating a longer wait time – around 10 years – for green cards, in addition to background checks, payment of back taxes, and fines for the undocumented. The long pause in temporary legal status aims, in part, to keep beneficiaries from immediate eligibility for federal public benefits, like food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance. Also, for young people brought into the US by their parents a special route to citizenship is being considered. Agricultural workers are also likely to get similar special treatment.

In the 1980s, IRCA's legalization process was criticized for the arbitrary nature of who qualified, confusion over restrictions, and a general failure to provide an ongoing legal avenue for those immigrants who continued coming to the US seeking employment.

IRCA's opponents also claimed recipients would take jobs from Americans, overload public service systems, and even reshape politics with a new voting bloc likely to be Democratic.

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