Looking Back at Amnesty Under Reagan

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Our video team recently posted a short documentary featuring the story of Marisol Conde-Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant currently studying at Rutgers Law School:

“I think that I’m the first undocumented person to attend law school in the state of New Jersey,” Conde-Hernandez says in the film. “It’s still in the back of my mind because I’m undocumented. What if I can’t practice as an attorney?”

In the comments section for the video, Atlantic readers discussed immigration policy, which has become the signature issue for the presumptive GOP nominee for U.S. president. One reader wants to know more about a landmark piece of legislation passed under President Ronald Reagan:

Has there been any deep longitudinal or follow-up study of Reagan’s 1986 amnesty recipients? There were about three million of them, if I recall correctly. I’d be interested in how they fared economically and, more so, how their kids fared.

First, a bit of background: The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) passed Congress 30 years ago this November. (Here’s the New York Times report of Reagan signing the bill.) Eric Schlosser, in his award-winning 1995 investigative piece for The Atlantic, “In the Strawberry Fields,” described how the IRCA was so long in the making:

In 1951 the President’s Commission on Migratory Labor condemned the abysmal living conditions of illegal immigrants employed as migrant farm workers in the United States. At the time, workers were found living in orchards and irrigation ditches. They lived in constant fear of apprehension, like fugitives, and were routinely exploited by their employers, who could maintain unsafe working conditions, cut wages, or abruptly dismiss them with little fear of reprisal. In many cases the life of these migrants was, according to the commission, “virtually peonage.”

The commission estimated that 40 percent of the migrants in the United States--at least 400,000 people--were illegal immigrants. Their presence in such large numbers depressed wages for all farm workers; that was “unquestionable.” [...]

The commission argued that the only way to stop the flow of illegals was to impose harsh punishments on those who employed and exploited them. It suggested fines, imprisonment, and a strict prohibition of interstate commerce in any goods produced or harvested by illegal immigrants. [...] Congress ignored the commission’s recommendations, and for the next two decades it was a crime to be an illegal immigrant in the United States but not a crime to employ one.

Then came the IRCA, “accepted as a once-only great compromise,” wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning scholar Jack Miles for the June 1994 issue of The Atlantic:

The mass legalization of then-illegal immigrants was traded for the promise that a new program of employer sanctions would destroy the incentive for further mass immigration. That hope proved vain; but if it had never been entertained, IRCA would never have passed.

That hope proved vain because, as Schlosser put it, “these sanctions have rarely been applied”:

Langewiesche’s May ‘92 feature, “The Border”

There are approximately 873,400 private employers in California--and only about 200 federal inspectors to investigate workplace violations of the immigration code. Moreover, the federal penalties for employing an illegal immigrant are mild. A first offense may result in a fine of $250, a third offense in a fine of $3,000.

Instead of stemming illegal immigration, IRCA has actually encouraged it. In response to growers’ fears that the new sanctions on employers would create a shortage of farm workers, Congress included in the bill a special amnesty for illegal immigrants who could prove that they had done farm work in the United States during the previous year. It did not demand much proof. [The program] was expected to grant legal status to 350,000 illegal immigrants. Instead more than 1.3 million illegal immigrants--a number roughly equivalent at the time to a sixth of the adult male population of rural Mexico--applied for this amnesty, most of them using phony documents in what has been called one of the greatest immigration frauds in American history.

Our reader is roughly correct about the eventual numbers: Around 2.7 million people received legal status under the IRCA, according to The Washington Post’s Emily Badger. How exactly did those granted amnesty fare? It’s not very clear. Here’s Badger:

So what do we know about what happened to that earlier wave of immigrants? Only a little bit — and hardly enough to measure the impact of a massive government policy change.

The Department of Labor sponsored two survey studies following up on several thousand of the IRCA immigrants — in 1989 and then again in 1992, five years after the law went into effect. Those studies suggested that immigrants made significant wage gains in the years after legalization, many of them by obtaining better jobs. Government records also revealed over time how many of them became naturalized citizens. In 1996, the year the entire IRCA cohort was eligible, a quarter of a million were naturalized. By 2001, one-third of the entire group had been.

Regarding our reader’s inquiry about the kids:

[Some] research suggests that children of undocumented immigrants are more likely to be poor and in poor health than children of legal parents. And so we might reasonably expect the children of immigrants to benefit from their legal status, too — even if they’re not born until well after any amnesty is granted.

Read the rest of Badger’s report here. If you’re interested in digging deeper into the IRCA or the immigration issue more generally, please let us know. Priscilla recently examined the present-day debate for our A&Q series, if you’re curious about some of the basics. Update from a reader, G.A., who raises some interesting questions:

I’m curious, as this subject arises, how advocates for illegal immigrants view the Reagan amnesty. Did it work? Did it fail?

Perhaps more important than the issue of fixing the “broken immigration system,” which is the narrative commonly heard, is the question of what happens AFTER such a reform is passed. Sort of like how “winning” the war in Iraq (defeating Saddam’s forces) was far easier than winning the peace, as it were. How do advocates for illegal immigrants convince American citizens that a reform would address their concerns?

I just wonder if 30 years from now, analysts will write about the failed Clinton amnesty. And to really play devil’s advocate here, is the immigration system really broken? Or are people simply ignoring the system and its penalties and later claiming that it is unfair?