The Road To IRCA, June 1986

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on June 29, 2011
Editor's note: This is the first installment of a 25-year anniversary series on the lead up to passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was signed into law in late 1986.

In November of 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which offered amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and established sanctions for employers who hired those not authorized to work in the country.

The passage of IRCA culminated a years-long congressional debate. In this 25th anniversary year, this blog will look back at some of the key moments in 1986 that helped produce the legislation.

In late June of that year, the House Judiciary Committee approved an early version of IRCA. By a vote of 25-10 the committee approved provisions offered by U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer.

Schumer, now a senator, sought to break a logjam that had formed behind the demands of western growers that they be assured a large labor force from south of the border.

The growers favored a measure approved by the Senate in late 1985, which would have provided for the annual importation of 350,000 field hands. That measure was sponsored by Sen. Pete Wilson, the California Republican who would later campaign successfully for governor on a platform that promised to crack down on illegal immigration.

But in the House, Wilson’s bill ran into opposition from Democrats who said it could revive the abuses of the old Bracero Program, which brought millions of Mexican workers to the U.S. from 1942-1964.

Schumer pitched his proposal as a compromise between advocates for agricultural workers and the politically-mighty growers. It gave both groups what they most wanted.

The agricultural workers would get amnesty, under terms far more generous than the terms offered to illegal workers in the general economy. And the growers would get not only a legalized work force but also the backup assurance of a program that would replace those who left the fields to seek work elsewhere.

House Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino, a pro-labor Democrat from New Jersey who had been wrestling with immigration reform for 15 years, grudgingly acknowledged the growers’ clout after the committee adopted Schumer’s ideas.

“We can’t beat the growers, and the growers can’t beat the chairman of this committee,” he said. “In view of that, we’re going to have to have a compromise, the insides of which may be very, very difficult to swallow.”

Before the committee vote, Schumer said his compromise was based on two assumptions.

''First, we believe that both growers and labor would prefer a solution to no solution,” he said. “Second, we believe that meeting the growers' needs for an adequate supply of labor and the workers' needs for protection against exploitation are not mutually exclusive.''

Then he added: ''We have met the needs of the special interests without sacrificing the general interests which propel immigration reform.”

The Washington Post editorial board was not convinced, writing in an editorial: “It looks like a cave-in to us. 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 Post said that as the bill moved forward, Congress would “have to weigh the broad interests of the country against the specific desires of some groups.”