Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

The Law: First federal law to impose sanctions on American employers who hired undocumented alien workers, while also providing amnesty for a specific category of aliens

Date: Enacted on November 6, 1986

Also known as: Simpson-Mazzoli Act; Simpson- Rodino Act; IRCA

Significance: The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was designed to balance public concerns about increasing illegal immigration with business’s need for cheap labor and the need to address issues of racial and ethnic discrimination. The final bill focused less on restricting the numbers of immigrants than on putting existing undocumented aliens on the path to citizenship and on deterring further illegal immigration by strengthening border control and employer sanctions.

During the late 1970’s, national economic problems and the increased visibility of both documented and undocumented immigrants led the U.S. Congress to focus on immigration reform. Fears traditionally associated with waves of immigration, such as the loss of jobs to lower-wage earners and unassimilated enclaves of newcomers, led Congress to create the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy in 1979. The commission reviewed existing immigration laws and produced a report in March, 1981. Two recommendations became the focal point of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986: strengthening sanctions on employers who hired undocumented aliens and improving access to American citizenship for undocumented aliens within the United States.

Immigration reform was championed by Wyoming senator Alan Simpson and Missouri representative Roman Mazzoli. Several versions of the bill they based on the recommendations of the Select Commission languished in Congress throughout the early 1980’s. A fragile coalition of civil rights-oriented immigrant advocacy groups and free market business groups who wanted cheap labor helped to overcome opposition from groups who supported restricting immigration to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act in November, 1986.

IRCA had two major components. The first provided amnesty to illegal immigrants already in the United States. Long-term undocumented immigrants who could prove residency in the United States continuously since before January 1, 1972, were permitted to apply for permanent status that would lead to American citizenship. Aliens residing illegally in the country after January 1, 1982. were given the opportunity to apply for temporary status that could possibly lead to permanent residency. Congress also bowed to the pressure of agricultural interests and placed undocumented workers who had worked in the United States for three months during the fiscal year ending May 1, 1986, on the road to permanent-resident status.

The second component of IRCA focused on deterring future illegal immigration. For the first time, federal law made employers responsible for verifying and keeping records of the work-eligibility status of all employees they hired after November 6, 1986. Employers who hired undocumented immigrants faced fines of up to ten thousand dollars and six-month prison terms for each undocumented employee in their workforces. Congress also strengthened nondiscrimination provisions of the law to placate immigrant-advocacy groups who were concerned that businesses would stop hiring legally documented immigrants who happened to have “foreign-sounding” names. The final provision aimed at deterring immigration focused on improving border patrolling to prevent illegal passage into the country.

IRCA provided a mix of amnesty for undocumented immigrants already in the United States and provisions designed to deter future illegal immigration. However, by focusing on resolving the problem of undocumented aliens, the legislation did not address the issue of limiting future immigration. Ultimately those in favor of an expansive American immigration policy triumphed over immigration-control advocates. The legislation affected approximately three million undocumented workers. However, its deterrence provisions had relatively little effect on stemming the tide of illegal immigration after 1986.

J. Wesley Leckrone

Further Reading

  • Hing, Bill Ong. Defining America Through Immigration Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. 
  • Zolberg, Artistide R. “Reforming the Back Door: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 in Historical Perspective.” In Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics, edited by Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. 

See also: Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987; Border Patrol, U.S.; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1990; Latin American immigrants; Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

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