Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

The Law: Federal law designed to reduce illegal immigration and to apprehend undocumented aliens

Date: Signed into law on September 30, 1996

Also known as: IIRIRA

Significance: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act, or IIRIRA, was enacted to prevent the flow of undocumented aliens into the United States. The law stipulated such initiatives as increased border patrol staffing for border surveillance, enhanced enforcement and penalties against alien smuggling, tougher sanctions for illegal immigrants caught inside the U.S. borders, and increased restrictions on alien employment, benefits, and assistance programs.

On September 30, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act into law. Before the law was passed in Congress, two sets of immigration bills had been considered in each house of Congress. One was dedicated to controlling illegal immigration, the second to managing legal immigration. If the legal-immigration bill had passed, it would have radically reduced the numbers of employment and family immigrants allowed into the United States. The other bill focused specifically on stronger border enforcement, apprehension, and deportation. Eventually, the two bills were combined in each house, only to be split again later, after arguments arose over the language of the bill’s component parts. The reason for combining the bills centered on the notion that the controversial legal-immigration bill would have an easier time passing if it were connected to the more popular illegal- immigration bill. After much debate, the legal- immigration bills in each house were defeated. However, several items from them concerning legal immigration ended up in the final draft of the illegal-immigration bill. The final bill was coupled with another piece of legislation not related to immigration issues; it concerned the finances of the day-to-day operation of the entire federal government— an issue that made its immediate passage crucial.

Six of forty-nine Salvadorans whose attempt to enter the United States illegally in 1999 failed
Six of forty-nine Salvadorans whose attempt to enter the United States illegally in 1999 failed. They are shown at El Salvador’s international airport after being returned to their homeland on a plane chartered by the U.S. government. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The illegal-immigration bill that ultimately became IIRIRA 96 was divided into six broad areas and focused primarily on stronger enforcement efforts and penalties for person who attempt to enter illegally, smuggle immigrants into the country, or live inside U.S. borders without proper documentation. The six major areas of the new law included:

  • Title I: Improvements to border control, facilitation of legal entry, and interior enforcement 
  • Title II: Enhanced enforcement and penalties against alien smuggling and document fraud 
  • Title III: Inspection, apprehension, detention, adjudication, and removal of inadmissible and deportable aliens 
  • Title IV: Enforcement of restrictions against employment 
  • Title V: Restrictions on benefits for aliens 
  • Title VI: Miscellaneous provisions 

One of the most controversial items in the bill, Title III, addressed the issue of undocumented aliens already inside U.S. borders. In particular, the government enacted rules calling for permanent restrictions or bans on undocumented aliens found in violation of certain legal rules. For example, the act states that any person who has been in the United States illegally for at least 180 days, but less than one year, must remain outside the United States for three years unless granted a pardon. Moreover, any person who has been in the United States illegally for more than one year must reside outside the United States for ten years unless a pardon is granted. Any such person who returns to the United States prematurely without the specified pardon will not be permitted to apply for a waiver for reentry for an additional ten years. Additionally, the language of the law applies regardless of whether a person has a spouse or children who are U.S. citizens.

Paul M. Klenowski

Further Reading

  • Hayes, Helene. U.S. Immigration Policy and the Undocumented: Ambivalent Laws and Furtive Lives. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001. 
  • Newton, Lina. Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform. New York: New York University Press, 2008. 

See also: Border fence; Commission on Immigration Reform, U.S.; Due process protections; Illegal immigration; Immigration Act of 1990; Immigration law; Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986; Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy; Smuggling of immigrants.

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