Limited Amnesty for Undocumented Immigrants


United States

Borders Citizenship Labor & Economy

The Immigration Reform Act (IRCA) of 1986, signed into law by President Reagan, established more opportunities to seek lawful migration and gain legal status. The result of contentious debates surrounding unregulated immigration throughout the 1980s, IRCA granted amnesty to more than three million undocumented persons through two programs. It was the first major attempt by Congress to address the challenges of unregulated immigration by bringing border enforcement alongside legalization provisions.

IRCA used a three-pronged strategy, also known as the “three-legged stool,” to deter and diminish illegal immigration; it created a pathway to legalization for long-term unauthorized migrants, established sanctions for employers who hired undocumented workers, and strengthened security at the border. The passage of IRCA also led to the emergence of state and local immigration coalitions, broader support among civil society groups to advocate for immigration, and the incorporation of immigration advocacy and services in established philanthropies and foundations.

Despite the law’s multi-faceted approach to addressing undocumented migrants, the population tripled from roughly four million in 1986 to over eleven million people in 2015. IRCA continues to be the subject of scrutiny, as both supporters and opponents of comprehensive immigration reform [see: The Ongoing Debate over Immigration Reform, 2015] turn to the landmark legislation to analyze its impacts and learn from its successes and failures. Significantly, the law was the result of strong bipartisan support in both the Senate and House of Representatives during a time of divided government.