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IRCA II

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You may remember Andrew Sandoval-Strausz from our podcast a couple of months ago. He now has an essay in the Washington Post about how the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 had a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, how this was an absolute good, and how we need to do the same for the millions of undocumented Americans in the nation today.

Years of polling data right up to the most recent surveys indicate that about 67 percent to 83 percent of Americans favor legalization for undocumented people. However, the U.S. Citizenship Act draws vociferous criticism from anti-immigration hard-liners and Republican elected officials. To justify their position, they are already resurrecting their old talking points: falsely accusing undocumented people of being a drain on national resources, predicting a “catastrophe” on the U.S.-Mexico border and claiming that the law would lead to more illegality.

All of these predictions ignore history. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 included provisions that, among other things, allowed 2.7 million undocumented people to gain legal status in the United States. In point of fact, this “amnesty” provision proved to be by far the most successful part of a law that also sought to regulate hiring and spent billions of dollars reinforcing the nation’s southern border. If anything, the lesson of that reform is that it should have given legal status to even more people.

IRCA resulted from a 15-year effort to address a major problem in immigration policy: 1960s-era legislation had dramatically reduced the number of workers permitted to cross the border, in effect suddenly reclassifying millions of mostly Mexican migrant laborers as working illegally in the United States. Reform bills failed repeatedly because both Democrats and Republicans were internally divided as they sought to balance enforcement mechanisms with legalization programs. President Ronald Reagan supported the idea, declaring in a televised 1984 debate, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” The bill nearly died — one congressman later joked that it had been “a corpse going to the morgue, and on the way to the morgue a toe began to twitch and we started CPR again” — but the bipartisan IRCA became law on Nov. 6, 1986.

IRCA included two legalization programs. The first was more general: It offered permanent-resident status to those who had entered or remained in the country without authorization before 1982, maintained continuous residence and had no criminal record; they could then apply for citizenship five years later. The second provided similar paths to unauthorized workers who had performed at least 90 days of seasonal agricultural labor during the 1985-86 growing season. Three million people, three-quarters of them from Mexico, applied for legalization, and nearly 90 percent of applications were approved.

For formerly undocumented people and their families, IRCA’s legalization provisions meant that they no longer had to live in fear of imminent deportation. Frank de Avila, a Mexican-born Chicago resident, remembered how viscerally and immediately the difference was felt: “Number one, the fear of being deported was eliminated. That was an emotional relief for the individual and for the community. Not to have that worry anymore that at midnight they’ll knock on your door and off you go.”

Sandoval-Strausz goes on to discuss how if anything, IRCA was too restrictive. I completely agree. We need a policy of complete “amnesty” for those who are in this nation and who just happen to not have legal status, as if that makes them any less American that anyone else.

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