IRCA's 30th Anniversary: Looking Back at October 10, 1986

By Jerry Kammer, October 10, 2016

Thirty years ago, on October 9, 1986, the House of Representatives passed a major immigration reform bill, putting it on course to be signed a month later by President Reagan. Today this blog begins an occasional series to take a look back at the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the political circumstances from which it emerged. Here is the top of the Washington Post's report on October 10, 1986:

The House last night approved a revision of the nation's immigration laws that would provide amnesty for millions of illegal aliens now in the country and civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens in the future. After 11 hours of debate, the House approved the bill on a vote of 230 to 166 and sent it to conference with the Senate. The bill, pronounced all but dead last month after a compromise involving foreign agricultural workers collapsed, was brought back to the floor yesterday after behind-the-scenes meetings produced a new agreement considered acceptable to the House and Senate.

Rep. Dan Lungren, (R-Calif.) called passage of the bill "a joyous occasion". Lungren was one of 62 Republicans who voted for it, along with 168 Democrats. Voting against were 105 Republicans and 61 Democrats.

Just two weeks earlier, Lungren had led a revolt of House Republicans who had stopped the bill in its tracks. The Republicans, while going along with the proposal for a general amnesty for illegal immigrants who had lived in the United States for the previous five years, balked at a Democratic proposal to resolve a dispute between farm worker unions and Western growers who had become accustomed to a large workforce of unauthorized farm workers.

That proposal, brokered by Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), would have offered a green card — permanent resident status — for illegal migrants who could prove that they had worked in agriculture for at least 60 days from May 1, 1985, to May 1, 1986. Schumer negotiated the deal by working with two fellow Democrats: Rep. Leon Panetta, who represented the interests of growers, and Rep. Howard Berman, who was allied with the farm workers.

The "Schumer amendment," as the proposal was known, was controversial from the start. "It looks like a cave-in to us," said a Washington Post editorial. "By giving agricultural lobbyists all they could possibly have dreamed of and by offering incredibly generous benefits to illegal agricultural workers, the congressmen have won the support of these groups."

The New York Times offered the amendment tepid support. Its editorial reasoned that since "only 15 percent of illegals work in agriculture", the accommodation of both field hands and growers "is arguably a tolerable price for controlling the other 85 percent."

Seeking to reject the Schumer amendment, Lungren sought to replace it with a provision from the reform bill passed by the Senate a year earlier. That provision, inserted by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), sought to meet the needs of the farmers by providing them with up to 350,000 temporary farm workers every year. Strongly supported by the mighty growers' lobby, the Wilson proposal did not include a special amnesty for farm workers.

After the October 9 House vote that ratified Schumer's proposal, the Brooklyn Democrat told the New York Times that the immigration issue was "a test of governance". He said that he had come to understand that unless the growers had a source of foreign workers, their problem could "do untold damage to the balance of trade of America and to my constituents, who depend on them for food.''

Philip Martin, a University of California at Davis immigration policy expert, later expressed astonishment at the dimensions of Schumer's "Special Agricultural Worker" program and the speed with which it was added to the reform legislation. Noting that it had received little analysis, none of the scrutiny provided by a congressional hearing, and scant debate, Martin called it "probably the least-thought-out piece of legislation that's ever been drafted."

By a vote of 199 to 192, the House rejected a proposal to eliminate this section. It was an important vote because many Democrats had said they would not support the bill without the legalization or amnesty program for illegal aliens. The proposal was made by Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, who called it a "reward for lawbreakers."