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IRCA: How Undocumented Immigrants Received Amnesty

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Adopted under the Reagan administration, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) was intended to comprehensively address unauthorized immigration into the United States. The bill included sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented immigrants, expanded border enforcement, as well as granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented individuals who had arrived before January 1, 1982.

Under the IRCA, employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers were subject to civil penalties that ranged between $250 and $10,000 for each hire. By law they were required to fill out the form I-9, which could verify employment eligibility. The act prohibited employment hiring practices that discriminated on the basis of citizenship status against U.S. citizens, and U.S. nationals. It also included the following classes of aliens with work authorization: permanent residents, refugees, and asylees.

Lawmakers argued the sanctions would discourage people from immigrating illegally by eliminating job opportunities for undocumented immigrants.

To address concerns that the sanctions would create a shortage of farm workers, the bill included special provisions for people who had worked on farms during the previous year. It was named the Special Agricultural Worker program. In addition, it designated new categories of visas for agricultural work (H-2A) and visiting non-agricultural work (H-2B). 

By 2001, one-third of IRCA Legal Permanent Residents had naturalized.


Also read: I-9, the Purpose of Employment Eligibility Verification

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