The Best Immigration Policy or the Worst
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) is viewed as one of the most important policy implementations in U.S. immigration history. As drafted, IRCA proposed to be a policy to control and deter all illegal immigration into the U.S., but the policy was truly directed at stopping the flow of Mexican immigrants that continues to be the largest immigration flow in the world. Daniel Tichenor writes in Dividing Lines that, “Originally designed as a restrictive enforcement measure, IRCA proved to be surprisingly expansive in both design and effect.” By identifying the unintended consequences of the law, this paper explores why the policy failed. Ultimately, this paper shows that IRCA expanded immigration by creating a greater need for it as well as by unintentionally breaking the traditional patterns of temporal and seasonal migration.
The Objectives of IRCA
The drafters of IRCA developed three objectives: to regularize the status of millions of undocumented migrants, to deter immigration through tougher enforcement, and to prevent the need for immigration. Each objective strived to ultimately solve the “immigration problem” by greatly decreasing the number of migrants coming to the U.S; however, each in fact increased immigration.
The first objective of IRCA sought to regularize the status of millions of undocumented migrants by legalizing those who entered before January 1982, as well as those that performed temporary services or labor, mainly seasonal agricultural workers. This appears contrary to IRCA’s purpose of limiting immigration into the U.S.; however, legislators saw this first objective as necessary. First, amnesty dealt with the problem of the presence of a large unaccounted-for immigrant population that largely participated in the informal economy. By giving these individuals amnesty, their numbers would no longer be considered part of the “illegal immigration problem.” Secondly, this objective encompassed part of a compromise made in order to get the votes needed to pass the law. Even opponents to illegal immigration remained cognizant of the labor power of immigrants. Politicians, especially from agricultural states, knew their constituencies consisted of agricultural employers that would be extremely upset if they suddenly lost their source of cheap labor. Politicians ensured that immigrants would continue to contribute to the labor force of the country by providing them with amnesty.
The second objective, toughening enforcement, proposed to close the doors on undocumented immigrants and reduce their accessibility to work. Section 112 detailed the fines and imprisonment that would be imposed upon anyone who transported undocumented immigrants into the U.S. Further sections detailed tougher border control and restrictions on visa applications. The expectation was that the changes would deter immigrants from attempting to cross the border by making it...