1986 Law Offers Clues for Immigration Debate In 1986, Congress passed a sweeping law meant to end illegal immigration. Although many now consider the Immigration Reform and Control Act a failure, Congress is revisiting many of its provisions in the current immigration debate. Renee Montagne talks with Louis DeSipio, associate professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California at Irvine.

1986 Law Offers Clues for Immigration Debate

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History may offer some lessons in this debate. Twenty years ago, Congress enacted a sweeping immigration law. Back in 1986, an estimated five million migrants were living illegally in the United States. That year, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, also known as IRCA. It was a law that allowed illegal immigrants to legalize their status. It also set fines and sanctions against employers who hired undocumented immigrants.

To learn more about the law and its effects, we turn to Louis DeSipio. He's an associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California at Irvine. Good Morning.

LOUIS D: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let us start with the circumstances that led to this massive legalizing of undocumented workers. What, in brief, was the atmosphere like then? And I'm wondering if it's at all comparable to today.

SIPIO: Oh, I think there are a lot of similarities to today. There was a concern in the general public about the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. There was a recognition that a number of them had been here for a long, long time and were on the road to becoming Americans, even if not formally through the law. And then there was a desire in the agricultural industry to increase its labor supply. So, you know, a lot of parallels to today I think.

MONTAGNE: And also parallel to the fact that the president, at that point Ronald Reagan, was pushing for this law?

DESIPIO: Absolutely! In both the case of President Reagan and then President Bush with the proposal of the guest worker program, both presidents used a little bit of their political persuasion to get Congress to consider a comprehensive immigration reform, not just to focus on border enforcement.

I think another parallel to today is that the bulk of the responsibility for coming up with the compromise had to take place in Congress, not in the White House, and in 1986 it took about four years for Congress to eventually come up with the reform that we now know as the Immigration Reform and Control Act or IRCA.

MONTAGNE: Now, for those who were concerned in 1986 and that period of time with legalizing millions of people who had been illegal for years--the law included sanctions on employers who hired illegal immigrants and also mechanisms or it was going to beef up border security--now, neither of those two things worked as it turned out. Why?

DESIPIO: Well, I think the problem with sanctions and employers are two. One is that the pressure has always been on Congress in any given year with appropriations to put money into border enforcement because that gets more attention. They can say we hired X more border patrol agents or we covered an extra ten miles of the border with fencing. So, you know, there's sort of a short-term pressure on Congress to move money out of employer sanctions and into border enforcement.

I think the second issue is probably a bigger one though, and that is that employers don't want to face the loss of production that would come from having their work force arrested on a given day. So they've used the political power they have through Congress and through the old Immigration and Naturalization service, and now Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to reduce the likelihood of border enforcement--and in some industries, in fact, to get a warning a day or two in advance if ICE agents are going to come and inspect their workplace.

So, the consequence of that by 2003-2004 is that there's very, very little money dedicated or manpower dedicated to workplace inspections.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, looking back at the 1986 law, are there lessons to be learned in terms of this new law, whether it passes or fails in the Senate and then in Congress?

DESIPIO: Well, I think one lesson is the overwhelming success of the legalization provisions of the 1986 law. People were surprised by the numbers of immigrants that applied and were able to demonstrate their eligibility by either speaking English and knowing some civics or taking classes to learn those things; that were able to pay the fees and negotiate the bureaucracy; but the evidence is that those legalized immigrants have now moved on, in many cases, to U.S. citizenship and to productive parts in U.S. society. So, IRCA's often framed as a failure, but I think the legalization provisions were a success.

I think the employer sanctions provisions, however, have in some sense never really been given a shot since there's been so little money focused on interior enforcement and a relative unwillingness to fine or criminally prosecute employers who routinely employ unauthorized immigrants.

MONTAGNE: Louis DeSipio, thanks very much for talking with us.

DESIPIO: My pleasure, thank you.

MONTAGNE: Louis DeSipio is an associate professor of Chicano/Latino studies at the University of California at Irvine.

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