The Immigration Reform and Control Act and the Challenge of Imposing Employer Sanctions
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act represented the most sweep-
ing change in U.S. immigration law in thirty-four years. Employer sanctions
are one of [the] major policy innovations contained within IRCA that were
intended to reduce the stock and flow of U.S. illegal immigration. 1
-- Michael Fix, The Urban Institute
The most important and lasting element of IRCA was the imposition of an employer-sanctions regime designed to deter further illegal immigration to the United States. Aliens immigrate to the United States illegally primarily in search of jobs. Employers find illegal aliens to be an attractive source of cheap labor. Illegal aliens are generally willing to work for lower wages than American citizens and permanent legal residents. Illegal aliens also often work in unsafe and unhealthful conditions, which American citizens and permanent legal residents would be unwilling to tolerate. As a result, firms save substantial sums through the employment of illegal aliens, both in terms of lower wages and avoiding having to make the expenditures necessary to comply with federal occupational safety and health regulations.
Through the imposition of federal civil and criminal sanctions upon employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, IRCA was designed to deprive undocumented individuals of jobs. Firms would be expected to respond to employer sanctions by refusing to hire illegal aliens, resulting in a rapid loss of employment opportunities available to undocumented workers. In the absence of employment opportunities, aliens would have no incentive to reside in the United States illegally, resulting in a substantial reduction in the flow of illegal immigration to this nation. On paper, employer sanctions seemed to provide the Reagan