How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

As immigration reform debate begins, it helps to turn back the clock to 1986

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Now that President Obama and eight U.S. senators have announced two different plans for comprehensive immigration reform, the debate begins as to what will be turned into legislation - and how far it will go. 

Two reform proposals failed to make it out of Congress in 2006 and 2007, and the last major overhaul took place in 1986. Even that law contained big compromises.

To understand what the president and a bipartisan group of senators have proposed this week, it helps to turn back the clock 27 years. That’s when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It granted amnesty to about 3 million undocumented immigrants and made it illegal for employers - technically, at least - to knowingly hire unauthorized workers. 

"The pieces came together, but in a way that basically predicted that there would be another immigration crisis down the road,” said Wayne Cornelius of UC San Diego, who founded the university's Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and has followed immigration policy since well before 1986.

"Knowingly" was an operative word when it came to IRCA. The business lobby strenuously objected to what it called a new burden on employers. In the end, the law was written in a way that didn’t require employers to verify anyone’s eligibility to work in this country, Cornelius said, "which opened the door to massive fraud and a lot of looking the other way."

At the same time, it offered no clear strategy to legally admit future workers or their families, and illegal immigration continued. Fast-forward to the 21st century, when federal immigration policies post-9/11 focused on enhanced border enforcement and national security.

Despite public momentum and White House support, two comprehensive immigration reform bills died in Congress. House Republicans mounted the strongest opposition, said UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio.

“In 2006, there was a genuine bipartisan bill in the US Senate," DeSipio said. "It got some 20 some Republican senators to vote for it, as well as just about all of the Democrats in the Senate. But it went over to the House of Representatives and they rejected it on its face. In 2007 the Senate wasn’t able to pass a bill, but I think everyone realized that even if they did, the House would be very unlikely to support it.”

What are the prospects of comprehensive reform now? Better than they were six years ago, some observers maintain, but that isn’t saying much.

“It is possible that a comprehensive bill will emerge from Congress this year. If it does, it will owe its existence to the election outcome this year, in which one out of 10 votes were cast by Latinos," UCSD's Cornelius said. "That was a very sharp wake-up call to the Republican Party."

But House conservatives could rally plenty of opposition to legalization, even as their colleagues draft their own immigration plan. What’s already on the table includes potential sticking points, too. Among them is the border-enforcement emphasis in the Senate proposal that makes any legalization contingent upon the government first meeting border security goals.

And as negotiations begin, those at the table could eliminate provisions aimed to prevent recurring problems with immigration policy, just to make the legislation easier for both political parties to swallow - the same way they did in 1986. 

Become a KPCC sourceDid you seek amnesty through 1986 immigration reform? | ¿Solicitó usted amnistía mediante la reforma migratoria de 1986?

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