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Getting Immigration Reform Right

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Publication Date: May 2007

Publisher(s): Economic Policy Institute

Author(s): Ray Marshall

Topic: Population and demographics (Immigration and immigration policy)

Type: Brief

Abstract:

Congress' difficulty in passing immigration reform legislation comes as no surprise to those who have followed this issue over the years, especially the debates that led to the seriously flawed Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Many of the factors that caused IRCA to fail are as prevalent now as they were in 1986.

Diverse economic interests, personal biases, and political ideologies make it hard to build consensus for effective immigration policies. These complications are exacerbated by the absence of reliable information about the magnitude of unauthorized immigration and its impact on the American economy and society. Unlike many other policy issues, there are no clear political alignments on immigration, making it difficult to build the coalitions needed to align the complex components of a successful immigration policy.

By the time IRCA was amended enough to pass the Congress, it became very clear to immigration experts that, instead of restricting their entry, IRCA would accelerate the flow of unauthorized immigrants into the United States, which is exactly what happened. Common estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants in 1986 were between 3 and 6 million; today, estimates range from 10 to 20 million. The networks that give employers a dependable supply of unauthorized immigrant labor are much more institutionalized and difficult to control. If the United States does not get policy right this time, 20 years from now the number of unauthorized immigrants probably will have at least doubled and be even more difficult--if not impossible--to control.

Since past mistakes can provide lessons for more effective future policies, this report will first explore the reasons for IRCA's failure, including some common myths about unauthorized immigration. This report concludes with an analysis of a comprehensive mix of policies that could serve the best interests of the United States and other countries, especially Mexico.