The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

By Rosemary Jenks and Robert Malloy on December 1, 1996

pp. 18-19 in Immigration Review no. 27, Fall/Winter, 1996-97


Both the House and the Senate last spring passed measures to control illegal immigration (see Immigration Review, No. 25, p. 1), but it wasn't until fall that the House-Senate conferees met to work out the differences between the two bills. The primary, though not the only, stumbling block for the conferees was the Gallegly amendment, named for its sponsor, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA), to allow states the right to deny public schooling to illegal immigrant children. President Clinton had promised to veto any legislation containing such a provision, and Senate Democrats had threatened a filibuster to prevent the measure from ever reaching the President's desk. House Republicans finally agreed to drop the Gallegly amendment and allow it to be introduced as a separate measure in order to assure passage of the illegal immigration bill.

Once Republicans had reached agreement among themselves, conferees were officially appointed. The House Republican conferees were Reps. Lamar Smith (TX), Elton Gallegly, Bill McCollum (FL), Henry Hyde (IL), Robert Goodlatte (VA), Ed Bryant (TN), Sonny Bono (CA), William Goodling (PA), Randy "Duke" Cunningham (CA), Howard "Buck" McKeon (PA) and Clay Shaw (FL). The Democratic conferees were Reps. Xavier Beccera (CA), Howard Berman (CA), John Bryant (TX), Barney Frank (MA), John Conyers (MI), Matthew Martinez (CA), Gene Green (TX) and Andrew Jacobs (IN). Senate Republican conferees included Sens. Alan Simpson (WY), Charles Grassley (IA), Jon Kyl (AZ), Arlen Specter (PA), Orrin Hatch (UT) and Strom Thurmond (SC). The Senate Democrats were Sens. Edward Kennedy (MA), Dianne Feinstein (CA), Paul Simon (IL), Herb Kohl (WI) and Patrick Leahy (VT).

By this time, the 104th Congress was drawing to a close and Members were anxious to return to their states to campaign for the November elections. This gave the White House the upper hand in the negotiations: if Members wanted to end the session in time to campaign effectively, Republicans would have to make certain concessions. These concessions included striking significant portions of Title V, which extended the welfare law's restrictions on noncitizen eligibility for public assistance, including the provisions to bar noncitizens from taxpayer-funded AIDS treatment — which costs over $100,000 annually per patient — and to make deportable legal immigrants who become public charges in their first seven years of residence in the United States. The section requiring sponsors of immigrants to demonstrate an income level of at least 200 percent (140 percent for sponsors of spouses and minor children) of the poverty level was amended by reducing to 125 percent the required income level for all sponsors.

Once negotiations were completed, the illegal immigration bill was rolled into an omnibus appropriations bill, which passed in the House by 370 to 37 and in the Senate by 84 to 15. It was signed into law by President Clinton on September 30, 1996.

The main provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 are as follows:

Border Enforcement

The law authorizes 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents each year from 1997 to 2001; requires additional physical barriers (including 14 miles of triple fencing near San Diego) and technology along the border; imposes, for the first time, civil penalties on illegal border crossers and criminal penalties for high-speed flight from immigration checkpoints; and calls for the fingerprinting of all apprehended illegal aliens nationwide.

Alien Smuggling and Document Fraud

The law allows wiretaps for investigations of alien smuggling operations; increases the criminal penalties for alien smuggling and document fraud; and establishes criminal penalties for aliens who make false claims of U.S. citizenship to obtain benefits and for noncitizens who vote in federal elections.

Exclusion, Deportation and Detention

The law permanently bars from the United States any alien convicted of an aggravated felony and ordered deported and retroactively defines an aggravated felony to include any crime carrying a sentence of one year or more; bars from the United States for three to ten years illegal aliens, depending on how long they resided here illegally; authorizes immigration inspectors to summarily exclude aliens who arrive at a port of entry with no documents or false documents, unless they claim asylum; streamlines the asylum process and limits judicial review; mandates detention of all criminal aliens pending deportation; limits judicial review of deportation orders and eliminates most forms of relief from deportation; and makes deportable aliens convicted of domestic violence, stalking or child abuse, neglect or abandonment, and aliens who violate protection orders.

Employer Sanctions and Interior Enforcement

The law requires the INS to establish three four-year voluntary employment authorization verification pilot programs in five of the top seven states of illegal immigrant settlement; reduces the number of documents employers may accept as proof of work authorization; authorizes 300 additional investigators, with at least half to investigate employer sanctions violations, each year from 1997 to 1999; allows the Attorney General to enter into agreements authorizing state or local government officials to apprehend and/or detain illegal aliens; and requires the INS to station at least ten agents in each state.

Public Benefits

The law amends the welfare reform law to make eligible for welfare benefits certain battered spouses and children; postpones noncitizen ineligibility for food stamps until April 1, 1997; makes illegal immigrants ineligible for Social Security benefits and special in-state tuition for postsecondary education and requires verification of residence status for applicants for Social Security and higher educational assistance; mandates that affidavits of support be legally binding; requires sponsors of immigrants to demonstrate the ability to maintain an income of at least 125 percent of the poverty level.

Miscellaneous Provisions

The law establishes forced abortion, involuntary sterilization, and "resistance to a coercive population control policy" as grounds for refugee status; limits the number of such refugee grants to 1,000 a year; restricts the Attorney General's parole authority and requires long-term parolees to be subtracted from annual family-preference immigration levels; requires asylum claimants to file applications within one year of arriving in the United States; allows the Attorney General to revoke asylum status if home-country conditions improve; authorizes additional asylum officers; establishes a program to monitor foreign students; prohibits state and local governments from instituting policies of non-cooperation with the INS; makes female genital mutilation of women under age 18 a federal crime; and requires birth certificates to be issued on safety paper and have other security features.