Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California
US & World

Immigration reform: The 1986 amnesty vs. the 2013 path to citizenship: How they compare

The path to U.S. citizenship is expected to take 13 years for unauthorized immigrants who qualify for legal status under the Senate's immigration reform proposal.
The path to U.S. citizenship is expected to take 13 years for unauthorized immigrants who qualify for legal status under the Senate's immigration reform proposal.
Grant Slater/KPCC

The path to citizenship proposed in the Senate immigration reform bill filed Wednesday is more complicated than the one under the 1986 amnesty law, even if the endgame is the same. 

Opponents say the new proposal amounts to amnesty. But its backers say, this time, the legal status immigrants would eventually acquire is hard-earned. If anything, it would be a much longer road — and with many more people on it — than the last time, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided legal status for nearly three million people.

Here are some key differences, and  a few similarities, between the two:

A longer time in line

Those who qualified for the 1986 amnesty started  with 18 months of temporary legal status, after which they could apply for permanent legal status. After five years (the standard wait time for legal residents), amnesty recipients could then apply for U.S. citizenship. 

The 2013 proposed path is more circuitous. First, the federal government must reach border security goals, a "trigger" that would allow unauthorized immigrants to embark on the path to citizenship. Those who qualify would first spend 10 years in provisional legal status, able to work and travel but ineligible for public benefits. Then they would be eligible for permanent legal status. After three more years, they'd be able to apply for citizenship. Expected wait time if all goes well: 13 years.

Border security triggers

In 1986, there was no contingency between legalization and border security. Although that year's bill did allocate more money for border enforcement, legal status for amnesty recipients didn't hinge on security goals. 

Under the Senate proposal today, the federal government must meet a 90 percent border security "effectiveness rate." Only if this goal is met can unauthorized immigrants apply for provisional legal status. Other triggers must then be met before they can move on to permanent status.

Permanent status triggers: E-Verify and more

The 1986 law did establish an employment verification system of sorts, but those were the analog days. The law made it illegal to hire people who weren't authorized to work in the U.S. and introduced the I-9 form, on which employers attest that employees have provided proof of eligibility to work in the U.S. But employers didn't need to verify that proof, creating a loophole and encouraging the use of false documents.

The 2013 Senate proposal aims to do away with the loophole by mandating that, within five years, all employers must use E-Verify, an online tool for authenticating work eligibility. The program, so far voluntary, has had its share of complaints; the bill promises it will be "enhanced." Most importantly, immigrants who get provisional legal status after the first border security trigger is met can't proceed to permanent until mandatory E-Verify is rolled out.

Other triggers that must be met before immigrants' provisional status becomes permanent: more border security and fencing, and an electronic exit system at ports of entry to track who leaves the country. People currently waiting in backlogs to enter legally must also have obtained their green cards before this new crop of immigrants can move forward.

Length of stay in U.S.

The 1986 law required people to have already been living in the U.S. since before the first day of 1982.

The 2013 allows people who have lived in the U.S. for less time to qualify. Applicants need to have been here continuously since before the last day of 2011 — less than a year-and-a-half ago.

Criminal background checks 

The 1986 law barred applicants convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors committed in the U.S. 

The Senate bill is similar, but more stringent, making ineligible anyone convicted of an aggravated felony, felony, three or more misdemeanors, any offense under foreign law, or voting illegally. 


Amnesty applicants under the 1986 were required to pay fees, but weren't fined for having been in the U.S. illegally.

On top of application fees and back taxes, the Senate plan proposes that most applicants for provisional legal status pay an initial penalty of $500, then another $500 after six years to renew their status. If allowed to move on to permanent status, they would then pay another $1,000 penalty.

Different groups, different wait times

The 1986 law applied evenly to a broad swath of unauthorized immigrants here at the time, provided they met the residency cutoff and other requirements. With the exception of agricultural workers, it didn't single out individual groups with different rules.

The Senate's plan provides a faster route for young people who arrived in the U.S. as minors and would qualify for the proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Under the bill, they would be eligible for permanent legal status within five years. They would also be spared from paying a fine.

Many more eligible today

In 1986, the number of people living in the U.S. illegally was relatively small in comparison with today's estimated 11 million. Roughly 2.7 million people qualified for amnesty then.

Many more would be likely eligible for legal status under the Senate proposal, although between the Dec. 31, 2011 cutoff date and strict requirements, far fewer than 11 million would qualify in the end.

Hearings on the Senate bill are expected to begin late this week.