The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 legalized
individuals who had resided unlawfully in the United States
continuously for five years by granting temporary resident status
adjustable to permanent residency. That law failed to curb the
influx of illegal immigration. The lesson for Congress is that
granting amnesty overwhelms subsequent efforts to enforce the law
and create appropriate legal avenues for South-North migration.
Congress should strip provisions granting probationary status to
individuals unlawfully residing in the United States from the
Senate's proposed immigration bill and work to create a truly
viable temporary worker program that will be popular with both
potential employers and employees.
A Blast from the Past
Like the current Senate legislation, the Immigration Reform and
Control Act of 1986 was a bipartisan compromise and strongly
supported by the President. When President Reagan signed the bill,
he declared, "It will remove the incentive for illegal
immigration." He believed that because the bill addressed the
status of those illegally in the country and promised to reduce
further mass illegal migration through more rigorous enforcement of
the law and a temporary worker program.
Like the Senate's current bill, the 1986 law granted immediate
legal status to individuals unlawfully in the United States. Like
the current proposal, the 1986 law included additional conditions
such as a criminal background check, payment of application fees,
and acquisition of English language skills. The core of the law was
nevertheless an amnesty that excused the intentional violation of
American laws. The impact of granting amnesty undermined the
deterrent effect of subsequent efforts to enforce immigration
In all likelihood, the current bill would spark the same result.
But today illegal immigration is more prevalent, and so the stakes
are higher. About 2.5 million individuals applied for legalization
under the 1986 law. Now the unlawfully present population in the
United States is estimated at five times that number.
The framers of the 1986 Act promised rigorous enforcement of
immigration laws. This included an employer verification system and
a focus on workplace enforcement. These efforts failed to stem the
growth of the undocumented workforce. Nevertheless, the authors of
the current bill propose a similar strategy.
The 1986 law also proposed a temporary worker program for
agricultural workers. The program, however, was highly
bureaucratic, inflexible, and unresponsive to the needs of the
labor market. As a result, many employers opted to continue to rely
on the undocumented workforce. The temporary worker program now
proposed by the Senate suffers similar shortcomings.
Finally, the 1986 bill did not address border security. In
effect, neither does the current Senate bill. The current bill only
restates border security requirements that are already in law. In
addition, the "security triggers" in the current bill would, at
most, only delay the implementation of a temporary work
Stop the Insanity
The 1986 bill granted amnesty, then tried to enforce the law, and
created a poor alternative to undocumented labor. It failed. The
current bill follows exactly the same strategy. It will fail as
well. Responsible reform legislation has to adopt a different
course. Congress must do three things:
- Reject granting amnesty;
- Enforce the law; and
- Create a realistic, flexible, and practical temporary worker
program as soon as possible.
Any proposed immigration reform that does not satisfy these
three fundamental goals is as flawed as the 1986 law.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research
Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage