What also expanded was the national sense of crisis surrounding the issue. At the time the law was passed, Meissner said, illegal immigration had a significant impact in only half a dozen states — New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Illinois and California.
Now, thanks largely to the demand for labor during the economic boom of the 1990s, illegal immigration has become a high-priority issue in virtually every state, including places such as Alabama, Iowa, Georgia and Nebraska.
The most contentious part of the 1986 law was the provision that, for the first time, made it illegal for an employer to knowingly hire a worker who was not in the country legally.
Until then, it had been a felony to harbor an illegal immigrant, but the 1952 “Texas Proviso” stipulated that hiring one did not violate the law. Under the 1986 law, employers who hire undocumented workers are subject to civil penalties of $250 to $10,000 for each of those employees.
What the 1986 act did not provide, however, was any realistic means of enforcing the new requirements for employers, which is why they were and are rarely punished.
In fiscal 2006, for instance, not a single employer was fined, according to statistics compiled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Obama administration has cracked down more vigorously, but the chances of getting caught and punished for hiring an illegal immigrant are still relatively low. In fiscal 2011, ICE issued 385 notifications of intent to fine employers, collecting a total of $10,463,988.
Why so little enforcement, when the practice of hiring illegal immigrants is so widespread? Wouldn’t it be enough to just follow the law that is already on the books?
Those questions come up every time there is talk of immigration reform, most recently seven years ago.
“One answer is that there are never enough federal budget resources,” the law’s authors, former congressman Romano L. Mazzoli (D-Ky.) and former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), wrote in The Washington Post in 2006.
“Another is that administrations of both stripes are loath to disrupt economic activities — i.e., labor supply in factories, farms and businesses,” they added. “And we know that disruptions in the labor supply are the natural, unavoidable and even desirable consequence of strong border and workplace enforcement.”
One of the law’s most glaring deficiencies was that it did not stipulate or provide a secure means by which businesses could verify the legal status of those they hired. Instead, it listed dozens of documents that could be used — most of them easily falsified.