Learning from History: As Congress Seeks a Comprehensive Immigration Fix, the Lessons of 1986's Historic Reform Must Guide the Way

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AS THE TEMPERATURE SURROUNDING immigration issues rises, let's remember that our political system walked this road 20 years ago during the debate that led to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. In its attempt to tackle illegal immigration, Congress struck a deal in which border control and employer responsibility were combined with amnesty. But the deal disintegrated in practice. Will Congress heed the lessons of IRCA as it revisits immigration reform?

The core idea of IRCA was that it should be against the law to hire people illegally in the country and that employers who do so should be subject to penalties. Employer penalties were first proposed in the 1950s by Patti Douglas of Illinois, a liberal economist who became a great U.S. senator. In 1972, Peter Rodino, then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, sponsored employer-sanctions legislation that died. In 1977, the Carter administration drafted an employer-sanctions bill. But the Judiciary Committee chair, Mississippi's James Eastland, a champion of agricultural interests that opposed restrictions to cheap labor, refused even to hold hearings on it.

Senator Edward Kennedy then proposed a study panel called the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Chaired by the distinguished Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, its members included a newly elected senator, Alan Simpson, and a junior congressman, Romano Mazzoli. Father Ted, as he was known, summarized the commission's work by saying, we need to close the "back door" to keep the "front door" open. Simpson and Mazzoli became indefatigable ambassadors for the commission's recommendations. They sponsored immigration-reform legislation in three successive Congresses before their bill was finally enacted in 1986.

Although the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is best known for its core elements of employer sanctions, border enforcement, and legalization, the IRCA framework had at least five pillars. Habitually brushed over are the state legalization impact assistance grants and the special agricultural worker programs. Under the legalization assistance grants, states were provided with $4 billion over four years to help finance services to people in the process of becoming legalized. This was by far the lion's share of resources allocated for implementing IRCA. The agricultural provisions provided separate, highly permissive legalization provisions for farm workers. A companion authority allowed for "replenishment" agricultural workers--guest workers in all but name. It was never used because agriculture did not have labor shortages for several years once its workforce gained legal status.

TODAY'S CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS that IRCA failed and the immigration system is badly broken. With at least 10 million people in the country unauthorized to be here, more than double the number when IRCA passed, that judgment is not surprising. Yet the solutions being advanced now are fundamentally those that were debated in the early '80s and before, and that ultimately became IRCA.

The practical question is whether we can do it right this time. In the IRCA compromise, legalization was the earrot required to get the stick of stronger law enforcement. Yet law enforcement proved too weak, while legalization proved to be the most successful (and underappreciated) of the bill's provisions. Almost 2.7 million of the 3 million applicants for legalization received a newly created temporary-resident status, which, in turn, conferred eligibility for permanent-resident status and citizenship after that.

The legalized population has experienced substantial improvements in standards of living, economic mobility, and integration into U.S. society. This was predicted as a result of people's acquiring legal status and eventually full rights. The funding provided to states to absorb costs--primarily English-language training--for this population represented a substantial human-capital investment and was by far the largest allocation of money provided in the legislation. …