U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The immigration reform bill enacted in 1986 granted amnesty to some undocumented immigrants in the United States, prohibited the employment of illegal aliens, and sought to curtail illegal immigration.

Summary of Event

Immigration-related problems had captured national attention in the United States by the late 1970’s, despite the reforms intended by sponsors of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (1965) of 1965. By the early 1980’s, spokespersons for trade unions, the American Legion and other patriotic associations, churches, organizations of social workers, civil rights groups, and institutions for the study of immigration evinced serious concerns about the economic, social, and political consequences of the growing flood of immigrants. Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) Immigration;legislation Simpson-Mazzoli Act (1986)[Simpson Mazzoli Act] [kw]U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform (Nov. 6, 1986) [kw]Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform, U.S. (Nov. 6, 1986) [kw]Immigration Reform, U.S. Congress Enacts Major (Nov. 6, 1986) [kw]Reform, U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration (Nov. 6, 1986) Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) Immigration;legislation Simpson-Mazzoli Act (1986)[Simpson Mazzoli Act] [g]North America;Nov. 6, 1986: U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform[06220] [g]United States;Nov. 6, 1986: U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform[06220] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 6, 1986: U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform[06220] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Nov. 6, 1986: U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform[06220] [c]Business and labor;Nov. 6, 1986: U.S. Congress Enacts Major Immigration Reform[06220] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;immigration Rodino, Peter Mazzoli, Romano L. Hesburgh, Theodore M. Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;immigration Simpson, Alan K. Kennedy, Ted Schumer, Charles García, Roberto

Several specific causes fed the nation’s deepening anxieties about post-1965 immigrants, aside from issues arising from immigrants’ growing numbers and the Third World origins of many. First, ample evidence indicated that beyond U.S. borders, the reservoir of potential immigrants was brimming over. This was in addition to the 60 percent increase that marked the legal influx after passage of the 1965 amendments. Immigration was therefore not an issue that would go away.

Second, despite the frenetic efforts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. (INS), millions of illegal immigrants had poured into the country across the Mexican border during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Some estimates placed their numbers at between two and four million, although experts conceded that no one could be sure of any figure. This “invasion” appeared to have no end.

Third, the backup of foreign refugees had reached unprecedented dimensions by 1980. Experts described a “global refugee crisis” involving between twelve and thirteen million people. Many of them were eager to seek refuge in the United States, leading one congressman to remark that nearly everybody in the world would emigrate to the United States if free to do so. Before passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, Refugee Act (1980) the United States had already accepted 677,000 refugees, three times as many as any other country. Seventy thousand more refugees were allowed entrance each year after the Refugee Act went into effect.

During the early 1980’s, the attention of the American public was captured by issues brought up by the so-called fourth wave of legal and illegal immigrants. Could these immigrants be assimilated, and should they be, given that most were Asians or Latin Americans drawn from cultures radically different from that of the United States? What impacts would they have on the workforce and the national economy? Would the INS prove capable of controlling U.S. borders, of ferreting out illegal aliens, and of maintaining respect for immigrants’ civil liberties? Would it be possible to minimize the corruption with which nearly all aspects of immigration were tainted?

Addressing these fears, Congressman Peter Rodino initiated and President Jimmy Carter supported a 1978 bill imposing sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants. The bill failed to satisfy either pro- or anti-immigration forces, however. President Carter then appointed a committee, composed of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as cabinet members, to study and make recommendations on immigration and refugee problems. Chaired by the president of the University of Notre Dame, the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, the committee concluded its two-year study in January, 1981.

The committee’s report gave priority to restraining illegal immigration while judiciously accepting slight increments to legal immigration aimed at family reunification. Recognizing humanitarian considerations, the committee had nevertheless determined that the time for massive legal immigration had passed. Following the committee’s final report, in December, 1981, an immigration task force created by President Ronald Reagan made recommendations that were forwarded to Congress. There, two proponents of immigration reform, Rodino and Congressman Romano L. Mazzoli of Kentucky, presented the Immigration Reform and Control Bill of 1982, which embodied most of the Reagan administration’s proposals. Although the bill failed, it was persistently reintroduced through 1984 as the Simpson-Mazzoli bill. The hotly debated measure became the core of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

IRCA superseded previous law, which had allowed the hiring of illegal aliens. It imposed sanctions on employers who did so and required them to maintain records proving the citizenship of employees. Fines were to be invoked against employers who hired illegal aliens, with criminal penalties imposed on those with a pattern of illegal employment. The act further offered an amnesty period to illegal aliens who had been resident in the United States since 1982, allowing them to apply to legalize their status. About three million previously illegal aliens opted to change their status.

Essential to IRCA’s passage were provisions for temporary foreign workers who entered the United States seasonally to harvest perishable crops. Congressman Charles Schumer successfully pressed for an amnesty for “special agricultural workers” (SAWs) that would allow aliens who had worked in the United States for at least ninety days in 1985 and 1986 combined—their number was estimated at 250,000—to become temporary aliens and then permanent resident aliens. By 1988, 1.3 million people had claimed SAW amnesty, most of them from Mexico.


IRCA was a highly politicized piece of legislation that represented years of congressional controversy. African American leader Jesse Jackson Jackson, Jesse and his Rainbow Coalition had opposed it, and so too had members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Earlier versions of its provisions relative to agricultural workers had drawn consistent fire from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which included New York’s Roberto García and Matthew Martinez, Martinez, Matthew as well as from farmworkers’ organizations and the growers who employed their members.

Proponents and opponents of the law were not divided neatly along liberal/conservative or party lines. At various stages of IRCA’s genesis, guarded support had come from Massachusetts liberal Ted Kennedy, Wyoming’s conservative Alan K. Simpson, New Jersey’s moderate conservative Peter Rodino (who at first battled reform), and Kentucky’s Romano Mazzoli. The opposition variously enjoyed support from Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, O’Neill, Tip liberal Walter Mondale, Mondale, Walter and conservative Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. Bentsen, Lloyd

Polls indicated during the early 1980’s that most Americans wanted immigration reform. Proponents included majorities of Hispanic Americans, African Americans, church leaders and leaders of patriotic orders, and organized agricultural labor interests. These groups, however, tended to perceive reform from different perspectives. Despite extensive public and private studies of immigration problems, hard evidence on the number of potential immigrants, the number of illegal immigrants, the number of prospective refugees, and the extent of corruption undermining extant laws was elusive.

Amid these complexities, the impact of IRCA was hard to predict. Some results were quickly apparent. The INS reported that the entry of illegal aliens into the United States apparently declined during 1987 and much of 1988, with INS apprehensions down from 1.6 million in 1986. This decline was attributed to IRCA’s amnesty provisions. By 1989, however, the INS estimated that its monthly apprehension rate had increased. Scholars cautioned that IRCA had been in operation for too short a time to allow accurate assessments of its effectiveness.

Stringent enforcement of IRCA was contingent on documentary information supplied by employers. The INS and immigration scholars agreed that in this regard corruption continued to be widespread. Fabrication of false documents reportedly was a brisk trade. Already feeling overburdened by governmental regulations and interference with their workers, most employers were hostile toward sanctions against hiring illegal aliens. Growers in particular feared shortages of workers and resented INS seizures of undocumented persons in their fields. Nevertheless, official reports indicated that IRCA’s deterrent effects on employers were becoming apparent by 1988, by which time several high-visibility prosecutions were under way.

The INS called for more funds, more personnel, and more elaborate ditching and fencing along the Mexican border. In addition, INS supporters continued to propose—as they had done for decades—that the federal government devise more reliable forms of identification than were provided by easily forged Social Security cards and U.S. Permanent Resident Cards (commonly called green cards). Some argued in favor of national identity cards, of the kind familiar to many Europeans, for all Americans.

Millions of illegal crossings of the Mexican border were only one large part of a complex pattern of illegal immigration. Thousands of Irish people, plagued by a depressed economy during the early 1980’s, also entered the United States illegally. Failing to qualify under the preference system or as refugees, they arrived as tourists and simply stayed in the United States when their visas expired. Rough calculations placed their number at about 100,000 in the late 1980’s, most of them holding jobs in construction and child care in the Irish enclaves of Boston, Chicago, and New York City. Although they were unlikely to be apprehended, they were locked in low-paying jobs and were without health insurance.

Their illegal status notwithstanding, these Irish immigrants soon formed the Irish Immigration Reform Movement Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM), which urged Congress to legalize their status and demanded the admission of additional Irish immigrants. After IRCA’s passage, Massachusetts congressman Brian Donnelly Donnelly, Brian contrived to have ten thousand visas placed in lottery for countries, such as Ireland, that had been hurt by provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. Some 40 percent of these visas went to Irish applicants. Desiring still more visas, IIRM subsequently became one of the lobby groups behind the Immigration Act of 1990. Immigration Act (1990)

Meanwhile, IRCA’s operation appeared to help resolve a running debate over the economic impact of Third World immigrants, who, since the 1960’s, had been the predominant elements in what had become the most massive immigration in American history. Legal immigration between 1980 and 1986 averaged 570,000 per year, nearly half from Asian nations and another one-third from Latin America. Critics of more open immigration argued that immigration laws were out of phase with the needs and conditions of the American economy. They dismissed contentions that newcomers created jobs, pointing to such practices as “networking,” through which newly arrived immigrants tended to hire members of their own families or other new arrivals rather than jobless Americans who had been in the country longer.

By the late 1980’s, most economic research, according to a 1989 Labor Department survey, showed that immigration in the United States—while not an unmixed blessing—produced more benefits than liabilities. These benefits were generalized in the form of lower product prices and higher returns to capital. Immigration created jobs and stimulated demand, thus producing overall economic growth that in turn reduced unemployment. Economists and demographers agreed that a slowdown in American population growth and the inability of the United States to produce sufficient numbers of workers to fill future jobs would result in labor shortages. Both business leaders and legislators seemed convinced by these conclusions, setting the stage for the Immigration Act of 1990.

By 2006, twenty years after IRCA, it was clear that the employer sanction provisions of the 1986 law had not been enforced, and illegal immigrants had continued to flood into the United States. The U.S. Congress once again took up the controversial issue amid new concerns about terrorism and the security of U.S. borders. In response, major pro-immigrant protests took place around the country, even as polls showed that the majority of American citizens desired effective border enforcement. During this period, President George W. Bush Bush, George W. added to the controversy by endorsing the establishment of a guest-worker program. Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986) Immigration;legislation Simpson-Mazzoli Act (1986)[Simpson Mazzoli Act]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borjas, George J. Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy. New York: Basic Books, 1990. Presents the results of a decade of research on post-1965 immigration and its effects on transforming the American economy. Examines the types of immigrants the United States attracts and whether the United States is competitive in the immigration market. Clearly written and informative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouvier, Leon F. Peaceful Invasions: Immigration and Changing America. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1992. Demographic study emphasizes the changes wrought in the United States by post-1965 immigration. Claims a pro-immigrant position but discusses economic and social destabilization flowing from politically expedient policy making. Includes brief chapter notes, tables, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest: Policy Directions for the New Century. 3d ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2003. Labor economist and former member of the National Employment Council criticizes the thoughtlessness of post-1965 policy for failing to give proper regard to the kinds of human capital allowed to enter the United States. Advocates immigration policy consistent with the needs of the rapidly changing labor market.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. Examines trends in and influences on U.S. immigration policy from late in the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Includes tables and charts, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Presents the history of American immigration and naturalization policy and associated legal and public debates through the texts of more than one hundred primary documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reimers, David M. Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Volume by a social historian emphasizes the positive effects of Third World immigration on the United States after 1945. Includes discussion of the background of IRCA and controversies surrounding the law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Examines the history of immigration policy in the United States since the nation’s founding, focusing on the factors that have influenced attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Includes tables, figures, and index.

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