Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

Introduced in August of 1995 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the nearly 300-page Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 detailed significant changes to Title 8 of the United States Code, which governs immigration and nationality. The stated goal of the bill was “to improve deterrence of illegal immigration to the United States” by increasing enforcement resources, expanding the definition of who was considered deportable and instituting harsher penalties for illegal immigration, among other methods.

A version of the bill was eventually passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Scholars and immigration attorneys consider it — along with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was passed the same year — to be the catalyst behind the modern system of immigration enforcement. Both acts made deportation much more commonplace and laid the groundwork for harsh interior enforcement that would characterize Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency created seven years later.

Among its more consequential impacts, the law made it much more difficult for people living in the country illegally to obtain legal status by requiring they prove their deportation would cause substantial hardship. The law also instituted 3– or 10–year bans on re-entry for those who had been in the country illegally for longer than six months and one year, respectively.

The law also increased border security, leading to a surge of apprehensions at the border. It made many legal immigrants, including longtime legal permanent residents, suddenly vulnerable to deportation if they had committed any one of an expansive list of crimes, some of them non-violent.