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The legacy of IRCA, 25 years later

If you want to understand today's immigration policy quagmire, you need to understand the Immigration Reform and Control Act, known as IRCA, a landmark piece of legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan on November 6, 1986.

After much political wrangling over its provisions, the measure did two key things: First, it provided close to 3 million undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, drastically changing their economic prospects and allowing them to move freely about the country and settle in non-traditional receiving states, including in the South and Midwest. Second, in exchange for the amnesty provision, the program set in motion a trend toward tighter enforcement, at the border and in the workplace. The workplace component made it officially illegal to hire undocumented workers, although loopholes in the law allowed employers to continue hiring them, a situation that has led to the current debate over the federal E-Verify program.

This paper published today by the Migration Policy Institute does a good job of explaining IRCA and its legacy 25 years later; one of its three authors is Doris Meissner, who directed the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration. An excerpt:

IRCA is generally known for three key components, which the bill"s sponsors fondly referred to as a "three-legged stool." The three legs of the stool were: tougher border enforcement, penalties for employers who hired unauthorized immigrants, and legalization for unauthorized immigrants who had been in the US for five years or more. Supporters of the bill saw all three components as being critically important to solving the problem of illegal immigration.

IRCA"s proponents stressed that increasing border control and immigration enforcement had to be the first leg of the new immigration enforcement regime. To accomplish it, the law established new criminal penalties for fraudulent use of identity documents and for knowingly bringing in, harboring, or transporting unauthorized immigrants. It also increased appropriations for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which handled immigration enforcement, and for the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR), which adjudicated deportation cases. In addition, the law called on the INS to increase the number of Border Patrol agents by 50 percent from its 1986 level.

The second component of IRCA was to establish, for the first time, federal civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants. Through a new employment verification regime, the I-9 process, employers were required to verify and document the lawful status and authorization to work of all new hires, including US citizens.

In addition, to ensure that "foreign-looking" workers were not subject to discrimination, IRCA made it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant based on his or her national origin or citizenship status. The law created the office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices in the Department of Justice, which investigates and prosecutes claims of discrimination.

The bill"s legalization provisions " the third leg " were presented as a one-time measure that would "wipe the slate clean" of the problem of illegal immigration, given strengthened border and new employer enforcement.

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