The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants is a no-brainer

History shows that legalization helps us all, while immigration enforcement measures often backfire.

Demonstrators walk along 16th Street NW toward the White House on Tuesday to call for Congress and the Biden administration to pass immigration reform legislation. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Biden and his allies in Congress recently unveiled their proposed immigration reform. The most important provision of the U.S. Citizenship Act is its path to citizenship for millions of undocumented Americans: Those who pass background checks would be granted legal residency and work authorization, and after five years they could become legal permanent residents after paying all their taxes and fees. They could then apply for naturalization after three more years, with many eligible to take the citizenship oath by 2030.

This kind of policy is very popular. Years of polling data right up to the most recent surveys indicate that about 67 percent to 83 percent of Americans favor legalization for undocumented people. However, the U.S. Citizenship Act draws vociferous criticism from anti-immigration hard-liners and Republican elected officials. To justify their position, they are already resurrecting their old talking points: falsely accusing undocumented people of being a drain on national resources, predicting a “catastrophe” on the U.S.-Mexico border and claiming that the law would lead to more illegality.

All of these predictions ignore history. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 included provisions that, among other things, allowed 2.7 million undocumented people to gain legal status in the United States. In point of fact, this “amnesty” provision proved to be by far the most successful part of a law that also sought to regulate hiring and spent billions of dollars reinforcing the nation’s southern border. If anything, the lesson of that reform is that it should have given legal status to even more people.

IRCA resulted from a 15-year effort to address a major problem in immigration policy: 1960s-era legislation had dramatically reduced the number of workers permitted to cross the border, in effect suddenly reclassifying millions of mostly Mexican migrant laborers as working illegally in the United States. Reform bills failed repeatedly because both Democrats and Republicans were internally divided as they sought to balance enforcement mechanisms with legalization programs. President Ronald Reagan supported the idea, declaring in a televised 1984 debate, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” The bill nearly died — one congressman later joked that it had been “a corpse going to the morgue, and on the way to the morgue a toe began to twitch and we started CPR again” — but the bipartisan IRCA became law on Nov. 6, 1986.

IRCA included two legalization programs. The first was more general: It offered permanent-resident status to those who had entered or remained in the country without authorization before 1982, maintained continuous residence and had no criminal record; they could then apply for citizenship five years later. The second provided similar paths to unauthorized workers who had performed at least 90 days of seasonal agricultural labor during the 1985-86 growing season. Three million people, three-quarters of them from Mexico, applied for legalization, and nearly 90 percent of applications were approved.

For formerly undocumented people and their families, IRCA’s legalization provisions meant that they no longer had to live in fear of imminent deportation. Frank de Avila, a Mexican-born Chicago resident, remembered how viscerally and immediately the difference was felt: “Number one, the fear of being deported was eliminated. That was an emotional relief for the individual and for the community. Not to have that worry anymore that at midnight they’ll knock on your door and off you go.”

That feeling of immediate relief developed into a deeper sense of security and belonging as the law’s beneficiaries progressed from temporary to legal permanent status, and as many continued forward to citizenship. “It took a while to get legal after 1986,” recalled Dallas Morning News immigration reporter Frank Trejo. “It was gradual, but especially after 1990 people started being less afraid once they started getting their documents.” Catholic Charities of Dallas worker Vanna Slaughter remembered how this improved every aspect of formerly undocumented people’s lives: “After they became legal, people could come out of the shadows. They could speak up, go to meetings at school with teachers, register to vote, become confident.”

The amnesty allowed people to dramatically improve their working lives and family finances. Freed from the fear of abusive employers who used the threat of deportation to keep wages low and working conditions dangerous, those legalized were now empowered to demand raises, join labor unions and bargain for better wages. Many of them also sought out more education and job training. Researchers later reported that IRCA beneficiaries’ wages rose by about 15 percent within five years and 20 percent over the longer term. By 2006 they had doubled their rate of homeownership and halved the proportion living under the poverty line.

These gains benefited whole neighborhoods and entire cities. “On the day when they could receive the amnesty, people were still keeping their savings under the mattress for fear that they could be repatriated at any moment and lose their money,” de Avila remembered about Chicago. “But once they could be here more securely, they took this money and invested it.” In Dallas, Salvadoran immigrant Gloria Rubio, who had settled in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, recalled that as a result of IRCA, “we started investing, started buying homes, started opening second businesses, third businesses, and so all those people, just like us, that’s what they did, and that’s what made Oak Cliff improve.” Aggregated together across hundreds of neighborhoods in dozens of cities, these immigrants helped pull urban America out of decades of crisis by revitalizing neighborhood commerce, stabilizing housing markets and driving down crime rates.

Despite the IRCA’s dramatic improvements to the lives of “amnistiados” and the benefits that accrued to their fellow Americans nationwide, the 1986 law has become an object of hatred among immigration restrictionists because the number of immigrants in the United States, including those without authorization, rose markedly in the two decades after its passage.

IRCA’s detractors typically fail to understand why this happened. One key reason was the law’s “border security” provisions. The 1986 act heavily militarized the U.S.-Mexico border, markedly increasing patrols, fences and other enforcement mechanisms. Paradoxically, these measures made it harder for migrants to move back and forth across the border, and those without legal status became much more likely to remain in the United States and to keep their spouses and children with them. The very provisions intended to lock migrants out had actually locked them in.

The other main factor was a U.S. economy that grew quickly in the decades that followed and required many more workers, including immigrants. Those who remained undocumented were often harshly exploited by U.S. employers. Despite fears that this would drive down the wages of American citizens, labor markets remained tight, and workers at every income level enjoyed substantial growth in real wages from 1989 through 2001. The 1990s turned out to be both the decade when the United States welcomed the most immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in our history and the longest period of continuous economic expansion the nation had ever seen.

In retrospect, IRCA’s immigrant legalization should have been bigger. As a report from the Migration Policy Institute points out, it was limited by restrictive residency requirements, an elaborate application, a relatively short filing deadline, inadequate funding to help applicants and other restrictions that excluded between 1 million and 2 million people — including many refugees from U.S.-instigated civil wars in Central America — from regularizing their status. Had these migrants been able to share in the benefits of IRCA, they would have benefited from greater security, better inclusion in American society and higher wages that would also have attenuated the nation’s runaway economic inequality.

But in the decades since IRCA, restrictionists have used anti-democratic parliamentary maneuvers to frustrate the will of the majority. They have repeatedly prevented the passage of legalization programs that would bring people out of the shadows while ramping up deadly “enforcement” measures that harm families and workers — this even though the American labor movement has come to favor more liberalized immigration policy, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Anti-immigration hard-liners have gotten the history wrong. They have smeared legalization as “amnesty” to conjure up images of lawlessness and border crisis when, in reality, it is restrictionist policies that have fomented humanitarian crisis. What IRCA’s history shows us is that there is no reason to fear a generous path to citizenship for undocumented Americans. On the contrary, we all have much to gain from it.

The United States continues to depend on immigrants to maintain our population, our workforce and our institutions. They are owed a great deal, especially after the coronavirus’s deadly toll on undocumented workers, without whom we would not have enough food on the table or adequate medical care for our families. A large-scale legalization is an essential part of what is supposed to be the American promise of opportunity to be recognized as full members of our communities, with the full rights of citizenship.