How 2013 Immigration Reform Has Learned from Past Mistakes

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The specter of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA, has haunted every immigration-reform effort over the past few decades and continues to influence the 2013 reform debates. Senators who oppose reform have used the 1986 law—where the United States granted legalization to 3 million unauthorized immigrants—as a cautionary example of the effects of legalization. They maintain that IRCA was sold to the public as a means to end unauthorized immigration but that it failed and, in fact, encouraged more unauthorized migration.

Although the predicate facts are true—IRCA legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants, and now we have 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country—the conclusions these opponents draw are false. The central reason IRCA never stood a chance at stopping unauthorized migration was that it failed to acknowledge and regulate the integrated North American labor market that already existed. It did not look to the future or create new legal channels for economic migrants. Instead, it counted on future migration to be stymied by an inadequate employment-verification requirement that practically invited fraud and a nonexistent border-security apparatus. The problem with IRCA was not the legalization component; it was the lack of an extant enforcement apparatus and a failure to produce a vision for future migration.

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