The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) is legitimately seen as a failure by those favoring enforcement of American laws and by many Americans more generally. Additionally, conservatives look back and see themselves as having been deceived.
The failure part is easy enough to understand and document. After IRCA became law in 1986, approximately 2.7 million illegal aliens took advantage of its provisions to gain legal status. The number of illegal aliens in this country is now estimated at somewhere between 11 and 12 million.
Clearly, the employment enforcement provisions did not have their intended or desired effect and the reasons that they failed to work are not hard to discern. Employers would be sanctioned if they "knowingly" hired illegal aliens, but the law required no mandatory mechanism that employers were required to check. Any document, of whatever authenticity, was enough to take employers off the hook. A complete defense was "I asked, they showed me what looked like legitimate papers, and I'm not a document expert."
This gigantic enforcement loophole only became clear after the law went into effect and the legalization of 2.7 million illegal aliens was proceeding apace. It is for this reason that those in favor of enforcement feel duped, and legitimately so.
The "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" Act of 2007 that attempted to reach an immigration "grand bargain" had a slightly different mix than the bill that Reagan signed. Again, all illegal aliens would immediately receive a Z-visa allowing them to live and work in the United States indefinitely, eventually apply for a regular "green card" and thereafter, if they wished, become American citizens with all the advantages that entails.
The bill also would have created an "Employment Eligibility Verification System" that would develop a central database meant to hold immigrant status information on all workers living in the United States. As one description of this requirement noted, "Eventually all employers, regardless of size of the company, would have been required to assemble this information and keep the system updated on all their employees." [Emphasis added]
Of course the key word in that sentence is "eventually", since it points to the problem of disproportional sequential impact. In plain English, legalization advocates have their goals met immediately, while immigration law enforcement advocates realize their goals "eventually".
More than a quarter of a century after the enactment of the employment verification system that was a key element of the IRCA grand bargain, the United States still does not have a nationwide mandatory system in place and operating.
Lesson learned? Enforcement first.
That bill also tried to change other key elements of American immigration policy. It would have changed the current employer-sponsored system of immigration employment by a point system based on education level, jobs skills, English proficiency, and family ties supplemented by a temporary guest worker program that would allow immigrants to work in the country for a limited period.
As if that weren't enough, the bill also contained a wide range of other policy changes.
- authorizing Homeland Security to award initial entry, status adjustment, and citizenship assistance grants to qualifying community-based organizations;
- authorizing the Secretary of State to award a grant to a U.S. land grant university to establish a university-based Mexican rural poverty mitigation program;
- authorizing the cancellation of removal and adjustment to conditional permanent resident status for certain alien students who are long-term U.S. residents;
- directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to establish a state impact assistance grant program to provide health and education services to noncitizens.
The above are just a sampling of the many changes, some big, some small, most of them having an unknown impact, that were contained within this rather large, 790-page-long, omnibus immigration bill.
Lesson learned? Specific, discrete immigration reform efforts, with ongoing evaluation of their effects are more prudent and preferable to vast, multi-element changes in the basic structure of American immigration policy.
Next: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (9): Why Immigration Grand Bargains Fail — The Amnesty Trap or view a list of the entire series.