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Immigration Law

What is IRCA, and What Does It Have To Do with Comprehensive Immigration Reform?

By Nolan Rappaport

Former immigration official and congressional staffer Nolan Rappaport explains the lessons of the debate, passage, and results of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Mr. Rappaport points out that advocates of comprehensive immigration reform now must learn from the effects of that act, commonly known as IRCA. He explains why fraud is a very large concern.


Who first said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results? I have heard that it was Albert Einstein. Maybe, but I am sure that some Republican congressmen had the same thought when Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), John McCain (R-AZ), and colleagues introduced the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, which was supposed to permit the creation of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in return for increased enforcement measures. The Republicans had tried the legalization-program-in-return-for-effective-enforcement approach already with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Approximately 2.7 million people were legalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) figures show that by the beginning of 1997, they had been replaced entirely by a new group of undocumented aliens. Advocates of comprehensive immigration reform have made persuasive arguments in opposition to this objection, but so far, that response has failed to eliminate Republican concern about another IRCA-type fiasco. It might be more productive to work with the Republicans who have this concern on a plan that would make it possible for a wipe-the-slate-clean approach to work this time. The path to such a plan can be found by studying the mistakes that were made in implementing IRCA's legalization and enforcement provisions.

The border security piece of the IRCA enforcement program is not discussed in this paper. The Republicans and the Democrats agree on the need for a secure border. The disagreement is over the amount of progress that has been made in securing the border, which is not an IRCA issue. . . .

President Gerald R. Ford signed into law the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1976, which, among other things, reduced the annual number of Mexican immigrants to the United States from 40,000 to 20,000. President Ford expressed his displeasure with that provision, correctly anticipating that this would only increase the illegal entry of Mexican immigrants. He promised to submit legislation that would increase the legal immigration quota, but he was unable to do so before President James Carter took office in 1977.

"In August 1977, [President] Carter proposed legislation to raise the immigration quota for Mexican immigrants and grant legalization to the undocumented immigrants already living in the United States." Congress did not adopt his proposal, but it worked with him to establish a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy in 1978. The Commission addressed some highly controversial issues that later became central to the IRCA debate. In its report to Congress, the Commission recommended "fining employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens" and establishing "a 'more reliable' mechanism to identify persons authorized to work (such as a counterfeit-proof social security card)." The Commission also "advocated increased enforcement of existing labor standards laws." And the Commission recommended "a onetime amnesty that would permit aliens [who had entered] the United States before January 1, 1980, ... to become legal immigrants [but only] after the new enforcement mechanisms bec[a]me active."

Congress did not follow all of the Commission's recommendations. The grand bargain that led to the passage of IRCA was the adoption of an employer-penalty program advocated by those who wished to curtail future illegal immigration in return for legalization programs.

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