1986: The Immigration Reform and Control Act

This year, we are taking a look at the history of the Texas-Mexico border and what events shaped it to where it is today. Join us for this series as we explore the key moments that built the foundation for the relationship between Texas and Mexico.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was the first sweeping change to United States immigration law since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. IRCA was intended to increase border security and establish penalties for employers who hired unauthorized immigrants. Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, the act is best known for combining strengthened overall enforcement provisions on the border and in the workplace with legalization provisions for certain groups of unauthorized immigrants.

IRCA and related legislation faced a long and difficult road to passage. A similar legislative framework was first introduced by President Jimmy Carter in August 1977 and rejected by Congress, followed in 1982 by the first iteration of IRCA. The legislation’s opponents included groups concerned about increased discrimination in the workplace and negative effects on the agricultural labor force, as well as opponents of the new hiring requirements. Compromise measures taken in 1986 – including the implementation of a guest worker program, aid to states to alleviate costs of immigrant integration, and a special legalization program for agricultural workers already in the United States – garnered enough support for the bill to become law.

The newly established employer sanctions and system for verifying employees’ immigration status marked a change in immigration policy toward employer responsibility in fueling illegal immigration. Additionally, expanded funding was provided for the Immigration and Naturalization Service as well as the U.S. Border Patrol, which enabled the agencies to increase enforcement of immigration law. The act also promised legal status and eventual citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to 1982, making it the first large-scale legalization program in U.S. immigration history. New visa categories were also created for temporary agricultural work as well as temporary nonagricultural work. Eventually, 2.7 million individuals were granted legal status under IRCA.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act remains in effect. IRCA’s utilization of legalization programs alongside strengthened enforcement mechanisms have made it the most comprehensive immigration legislation to date. The effects of the law have provided lessons on the topic of immigration reform that inform conversations on reform legislation today.

To learn more about the History of the Texas-Mexico border, go here.

This post was written by Katherine Rossmiller ’21. She is a Meadows Scholar studying Public Policy and Music with minors in American Politics and Statistical Science. She is on the Pre-Law track and is also involved with SMU’s Symphony Orchestra and the Belle Tones.

Information cited from the following sources:

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