The Road to IRCA: October 10, 1986

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on October 10, 2011

Exactly 25 years ago, on October 10, 1986, it was front-page news across the country: the House of Representatives had passed a sweeping immigration reform bill that would provide amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, a special amnesty for farm workers, and a guestworker program that would ensure farmers a large, continuing supply of field hands.

The bill passed just before midnight on a vote of 230-166. The tally showed 168 Democrats and 62 Republicans in favor, with 61 Democrats and 105 Republicans opposed. There was a sense of exhausted relief in the House, which had been struggling with immigration reform proposals for more than five years.

"I think everyone wants to get something done," said Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-KY), a sponsor of the bill, which combined the amnesty with a provision that outlawed the hiring of illegal immigrants. New York Republican Hamilton Fish Jr. added a note of urgency, saying passage of the legislation was necessary to avoid the possibility of a future "repressive public reaction that fails to distinguish legal immigrants and refugees from illegal aliens.''

Passage came after the House narrowly defeated, by a vote of 199 to 192, an amendment by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-FL) that would have stripped the amnesty. McCollum warned that amnesty would "send a signal" that "we've done it once, so we would probably do it again."

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-NY) issued a warning about workplace discrimination that explained the opposition of many of his fellow Democrats, especially Hispanics, to the bill that passed. Garcia said the House was "setting up a situation where employers would not hire people because they would be afraid of fines."

House passage set the stage for a conference with the Senate, which the previous September had passed legislation that would allow growers annually to import up to 350,000 guest workers. That proposal, advanced by California Republican Senator Pete Wilson, was bitterly opposed by advocates of labor, who warned that it would invite the abuses of the Bracero era, under which millions of Mexican workers came to the United States from 1942 to 1964.

Those who voted for the bill that passed the House called it a compromise between growers and labor advocates. Critics called it a cave-in to those two special interests that made future large-scale illegal immigration inevitable.

The principal House architect of the deal, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, described the struggle over immigration policy was as ''a test of governance.'' As reported by Robert Pear of the New York Times, Schumer "said he came to realize that if growers were denied a source of foreign labor it could do 'untold damage to the balance of trade of America and to my constituents, who depend on them for food.'''