Before Considering Another Amnesty, Look at IRCA’s Lessons

Article author: 
David North
Article publisher: 
Center for Immigration Studies
Article date: 
10 March 2015
Article category: 
Our American Future
Article Body: 

There is much talk about the need for “comprehensive immigration reform”. With that in mind it would be useful to review what we as a nation learned, or should have learned, from our last big experiment in the field, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

It so happens that I had a lot of contact with the IRCA legalization program. Both a major foundation (Ford) and a minor federal agency (the no-longer existing Administrative Conference of the United States) asked me to review and analyze that program, which I did extensively over a period of two years. At the time I thought legalization was a vital part of a genuine bargain, a one-time amnesty to be accompanied by a permanent policy of vigorous immigration law enforcement. That did not turn out to be the case and my views of legalization have changed accordingly.

We should never have another broad-brush amnesty. Such programs swell our already over-swollen population with still more low-income, lightly educated people and encourage future legal and illegal immigration, and thus create arguments for future amnesties. If there is to be a limited program, anyway, let it be tied to actual changes in the law, such as eliminating the diversity visas completely and substantially reducing family preference migration.

That said, but given the wide discussions of the subject, this may be a good time to review IRCA’s major lessons.

  1. Amnesties without real immigration law enforcement — like IRCA’s — just lead to more illegal immigration, and thus demands for more amnesties.
  2. It is hard to administer complex, multi-part programs, as in the proposed “comprehensive immigration reform” and as in IRCA. Smaller, narrower programs work better.
  3. There should be no program specifically for farm workers; agribusiness will surely distort and exploit such a program were it to be enacted.
  4. IRCA’s amnesty has stretched for more than a quarter of a century — we are still granting benefits to primary IRCA applicants.
  5. In addition to legalizing about three million primary beneficiaries, IRCA created massive follow-on migration and added huge visa backlogs in the family preference categories.
  6. A substantial amnesty will attract substantial fraud even when the administering agency — INS in the case of IRCA — has a law-enforcement focus (something USCIS lacks).
  7. IRCA granted all its beneficiaries a full path to citizenship; if there is to be another amnesty the new benefit package should be less generous and more nuanced.

In order to appreciate these lessons, it would be helpful to review IRCA’s origins and operations; the numerical results of the various parts of the legalization programs, both direct and indirect; the matter of extensive fraud; and the benefits packages and their consequences...