The Legacy of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 Ronald Reagan signs the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (click for source)

One of Ronald Reagan's legacies as President was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. To its advocates at the time, this law promised to resolve the problem of illegal immigration to the United States in an even-handed and permanent manner. While this law did open American citizenship to many people, it did not live up to the promises attached to it. Within a few years, calls for yet another immigration bill would emerge, due to the continued influx of illegal immigrants.

The 1986 law provided for a path to citizenship to any illegal immigrant in the United States before January 1, 1982 who had done the following:

  • Resided continuously in the United States
  • Paid a fine and any back taxes due
  • Provided a formal admission of guilt
  • Proved a minimal knowledge of U.S. history, government, and the English language

About 2.7 million people took advantage of this provision and put themselves on a path to full citizenship. This was a key driver of demographic changes in the United States in the late 20th century, along with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Prior to this era, nearly everyone in the United States was either of African or European ancestry. However, starting in 1965, many people moved to the United States from Asia and Latin America. Most of the people granted citizenship by the 1986 law had arrived from Mexico.

The 1986 law also provided for increased immigration enforcement. One way of doing this was in requiring employers to attest to their employees' immigration status, and penalizing those who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. Additionally, it increased funding and programs for border enforcement. The stated objective was to reduce future illegal immigration, such that the 1986 law would be the last reform needed in dealing with the problem.

Instead, illegal immigration increased after the law was passed. Within twenty years, the problems addressed by the 1986 act were back at the political forefront. This time an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States. Border enforcement was never as effective as promised, and many businesses skirted the employer provisions and continued to hire people without assiduously checking their immigration status.

In 2007, President George W. Bush and some Senators proposed a new round of immigration reform. It would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States for eight years with a visa, at which point they would be eligible to apply for green cards. Simultaneously, funding for immigration enforcement would be increased. Opponents pointed to the failure of the 1986 enforcement measures and killed the bill. Many declared they were only willing to discuss a legalization process once border security was proven to be effective. The debate (as of 2015) has remained at this impasse ever since. During this time, 11 million people have continued to live in a status of legal limbo, awaiting and advocating for a more permanent solution.

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