Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) (United States) (1986)


In the wake of massive refugee crises in Southeast Asia and Cuba (see refugee status), in 1981, a Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy recommended to the U.S. Congress that undocumented aliens be granted amnesty and that sanctions be imposed on employers who hired undocumented workers. After years of heated debate involving ethnic and religious groups, labor and agricultural organizations, business interests, and the government, a compromise measure was reached. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) provided amnesty to undocumented aliens continuously resident in the United States, except for “brief, casual, and innocent” absences, from the beginning of 1982; provided amnesty to seasonal agricultural workers employed at least 90 days during the year preceding May 1986; required all amnesty applicants to take courses in English and American government to qualify for permanent residence; imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hired illegal aliens, including civil fines and criminal penalties up to $3,000 and six months in jail; prohibited employers from discrimination on the basis of national origins; increased border patrol by 50 percent in 1987 and 1988; and, in a matter unrelated to illegal aliens, introduced a lottery program for 5,000 visas for countries “adversely affected” by provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
Because the measure was meant as a one-time resolution of a longstanding problem, a strict deadline for application was established: All applications for legalization were required within one year of May 5, 1987. At the insistence of state governments, newly legalized aliens were prohibited from receiving most types of federal public welfare, although Cubans (see Cuban immigration) and Haitians (see Haitian immigration) were exempted. By the end of the filing period, about 1.7 million people had applied for general legalization, and about 1.4 million as special agricultural workers. Of the successful applicants, almost 70 percent were from Mexico and more than 90 percent from the Western Hemisphere. The measure was not highly effective in curbing employment of illegal aliens, as officials were prohibited from interfering with workers in the field without a search warrant.

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