The Case for Legalization: Lessons Learned from 1986 and Recommendations for the Future | CLINIC

The Case for Legalization: Lessons Learned from 1986 and Recommendations for the Future

By Donald Kerwin and Charles Wheeler


This article originally appeared in Issues in Immigration, Vol. 1 (Center for Migration Studies, 2004). It was reprinted by Bender’s Immigration Bulletin, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Feb. 1, 2007).


The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 offered a significant benefit and created what its sponsors hoped would be a formidable club. On the one hand, it provided a path to legal status for nearly three million undocumented persons. On the other, it established sanctions against employers who hired the undocumented, in the hope that this would discourage undocumented work and migration. By the time its application period ended in December 1988, the U.S. undocumented population had fallen to between one and one-half and three million persons. At the time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) predicted that “[f]uture growth or decline of the resident illegal population will depend partly on [IRCA’s] effectiveness.” By this measure, IRCA has failed egregiously.

The very thought of another legalization program is anathema to immigration restrictionists who believe it would reward lawbreakers, create incentives to undocumented migration, and exacerbate the challenge of integrating the nation’s historically high population of foreign-born persons. Even if this were true, the alternative is less tenable. The task of removing millions of undocumented persons would be preclusively expensive, logistically impossible, and politically unpopular, given the draconian impact on U.S.-born family members and the U.S. labor market. Alternatively, to ignore the issue would result in a permanent underclass of disenfranchised persons, which would undermine the nation’s civic life, values, and security.


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