Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The commission’s report provided data used in the late twentieth century immigration reform debate. Its recommendations were reflected in such subsequent immigration legislation as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990. The commission’s work was still being used by Congress in twenty-first century immigration policy debates.

Despite the long-held belief that the United States, being a nation of immigrants, has historically encouraged immigration, much of U.S. immigration policy has actually been designed to limit immigration flows. The Dillingham Commission of 1907 paved the way for the immigration quota laws of the 1920’s that capped overall annual immigration and severely restricted the numbers of visas issued to people in regions other than western and northern Europe. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended what were essentially racial and ethnic quotas imposed during the 1920’s and increased the overall number of annual visas. By the 1970’s, however, renewed restrictionist sentiments were being voiced. Some members of Congress and their constituents were concerned about the perceived negative cultural and economic impacts of a large and growing foreign-born population, and the inadequacy of federal laws in addressing illegal immigration.Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee PolicyCongress, U.S.;Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee PolicyIllegal immigration;and Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy[Select Commission on Immigration and RefugeePolicy]Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee PolicyCongress, U.S.;Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee PolicyIllegal immigration;and Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy[Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy][cat]RESEARCH;Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy[cat]IMMIGRATION REFORM;Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy[cat]GOVERNMENT AGENCIES AND COMMISSIONS;Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy

Creation of the Commission

The significant increase in illegal immigration flows during the 1970’s led to the call for a study of the overall impact of immigrants on America. U.S. immigration laws made unauthorized entry and the harboring of undocumented aliens illegal, but failed to address the employment opportunities that were attracting undocumented immigrants. Historically, immigration law enforcement generally ignored the employers of illegal immigrants because businesses benefited from low-wage labor. Indeed, in 1952, Congress passed the “Texas Proviso,” which specifically stated that employing illegal immigrants was not illegal. During the 1970’s, Congress voted down all immigration bills that included employer penalties. One such proposal by President Carter, JimmyJimmy Carter in 1977 also contained an amnesty provision. The public response indicated that restrictionist sentiment was widespread. On October 5, 1978, Congress passed a bill to establish the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP).

Mandate, Composition, and Research of the Commission

SCIRP was charged with conducting research designed to determine the political, social, and economic impacts of immigrants and the effects of immigrants on population size and composition and unemployment of the indigenous labor force. The commission was also asked to make recommendations for policy initiatives based on an evaluation of immigration laws. The commission was chaired by the Reverend Hesburg, Theodore[]Theodore HesburghTheodore Hesburgh, the president of the University of Notre Dame. Among the commission’s other sixteen members were four prominent citizens, eight members of Congress, and the secretaries of state, labor, justice, and health and human services.

The commission compiled and analyzed databases on the testimony of hundreds of witnesses in public hearings conducted in twelve cities, meetings with experts on immigration issues, twenty-two studies of the economic and social assimilation of immigrants and refugees, and consultations with special interest groups. This two-year effort resulted in nine volumes of appendixes and a 916-page report.

Findings and Recommendations

Issued on March 1, 1981, the SCIRP report recommended that the global cap on annual visas be increased to 350,000, with preferences for immigrants who were highly skilled or who had capital to invest in the United States, and persons with family members who were American citizens. The report also recommended that an additional 100,000 visas be awarded annually for five years to reduce the pressure for illegal immigration, Finally, it recommended the extension of quota-exempt status to relatives of American citizens other than the currently exempted spouses, parents, and minor children.

Because of the large annual number of Asylum, political;and Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy[Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy]refugees seeking asylum who claimed to be fleeing persecution or to have been forcefully expelled from their homelands, the commission recommended that asylum should be considered on a group basis, with individuals being required to establish their eligibility. Failure to meet the criteria should result in deportation.

Based on its research, the commission found that the impact of illegal immigrants on American salary and unemployment levels could not be determined. It also found that undocumented workers were reluctant to apply for social services for which they were paying with money withheld from their paychecks, for fear of being detected. Consequently, social services were enjoying net funding gains.

On the other hand, the report also charged that illegal immigration had spawned huge enterprises in Smuggling of immigrantshuman smuggling and document forgery, and a general disregard for law. The commission therefore recommended legal penalties for employers of illegal immigrants and increasing the personnel and equipment used for border enforcement. It also recommended that amnesty and an opportunity to apply for immigrant status be extended to undocumented immigrants who had arrived before January 1, 1980, while rejecting the idea of a large-scale Guest workersguest-worker program.

The commission’s recommendations for increasing legal immigration flows while curbing illegal immigration had a clear impact on immigration policy debates and legislation that Congress passed after the commission issued its report. For example, the [a]Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986;amnesty provisionsImmigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 featured employer sanctions and amnesty for illegal immigrants who had been in the country since January 1, 1982, and the [a]Immigration Act of 1990;and visas[visas]Immigration Act of 1990 increased the number of annual “quota visas” to 700,000 for three years and 675,000 thereafter.Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee PolicyCongress, U.S.;Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee PolicyIllegal immigration;and Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy[Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy]

Further Reading
  • Graham, Otis L., Jr. Immigration Reform and America’s Unchosen Future. Bloomington, Ind.: Author House, 2008. Call for decisive action in reducing flows of illegal and legal immigrants that discusses the role SCIRP has played in affecting immigration debates and legislation.
  • Jacobson, David. Rights Across Borders: Immigration and the Decline of Citizenship. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Describes the contribution of SCIRP to the immigration reform movement and its effect on the erosion of traditional national sovereignty.
  • Laham, Nicholas. Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Immigration Reform. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Critique of the Reagan administration’s immigration policies, including the impact of SCIRP.
  • Newton, Lina. Illegal, Alien, or Immigrant: The Politics of Immigration Reform. New York: New York University Press, 2008. Describes how SCIRP affected immigration policy changes, including the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, in the context of a discussion of the way that political dynamics and rhetoric have altered American perceptions of immigrants and driven policy agendas.
  • Tichenor, Daniel. The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Comprehensive examination of the history of U.S. immigration policy that shows the back-and-forth shifts from restrictionist to more open-border policies, including the effect of SCIRP on important changes during the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Censuses, U.S.

Dillingham Commission

Economic consequences of immigration

Economic opportunities

Illegal immigration

Immigration Act of 1990

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

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