By Courtney Maurer, Director of Research

The U.S. is home to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. These people are extremely valuable to our country, contributing to both the U.S. labor force and to their communities culturally and economically, and often have U.S. born children of their own. Without legal status or pathways to citizenship, however, many are forced to live in the shadows fearing deportation and discrimination and our country is struggling to improve these circumstances. The last major immigration reform that was passed happened decades ago, in 1986 during the Reagan administration, and was titled the “Immigration Reform and Control Act” (IRCA). At the time, there were an estimated 3.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., and the immigration landscape was much different than it is today. Fast forward 35 years, and our system still is not working and accomplishes little. By now, the American population is used to immigration reform “waves”. With every new election cycle and presidential administration, immigration reform is discussed, but nothing ever gets passed. It is time for President Biden and the Senate to reach a bipartisan deal that fixes our broken and outdated immigration system, and will also create accessible citizenship pathways for undocumented immigrants and immigrants who are placed in perpetual grey areas. 

What is the IRCA

The IRCA was divided into three main components (along with smaller provisions that deal with the visa and agriculture sectors) that forever changed the U.S. immigration landscape. The first part is that the act implemented stricter border control and immigration enforcement. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the IRCA created tougher criminal penalties for migrants who attempt to use false documentation or for individuals who knowingly shelter or transport undocumented immigrants in the U.S.. This provision also increased funding for Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as USCIS) and the Executive Office of Immigration Review to increase Border Patrol agents and deportation hearings. The second part of the bill established what is currently known as the “I-9 process”. This provision created federal civil and criminal penalties for employers who hire undocumented immigrants and requires all applicants (even native born Americans) to complete a thorough verification process that requires individuals to submit documentation that verifies their legal status,identiy, and employment authorization to work in the U.S.. The third provision is arguably the most impactful due to the number of individuals who gained legal status in the U.S.. This part of the act was thought to be a “reset” for undocumented immigration in the U.S. by giving a large number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. legal status while increasing border enforcement to stop future undocumented immigrants from entering. The U.S. government offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. since January 1, 1982 by allowing them to apply for permanent legal status if they met other conditions. After a certain amount of time, these individuals could apply for U.S. citizenship. Due to the amnesty provision, almost three million undocumented immigrants gained legal status which enabled most to sponsor family members for U.S. entry through existing immigration pathways. These provisions of the IRCA were seen as compromises from democrats and republicans at the time, but in the end the act failed to make lasting changes that would “fix” the U.S. immigration system. Even after the IRCA was passed, undocumented immigrants continued to travel to the U.S. in search of work, safety, or due to various crises that the U.S. government refuses to reecognize as a humanitarian need . The biggest failing of the IRCA was to notice and anticipate the need for migrant workers in the U.S. labor force. The IRCA did not increase employment based visa or citizenship pathways. Thus, undocumented migrants still traveled to the U.S. for employment in during the 1990s and 2000s since U.S. employers still needed migrants to fill low wage and low skilled positions. The IRCA has been called a failure because it did not accomplish what the U.S. government intended it to. What the Raegan administration failed to realize is that immigration is an ever changing occurrence that will require different approaches and solutions as the circumstances causing immigration continue to change. 

 Why there needs to be updated immigration reform

The immigration sector and the immigrant populations in need of legal status are not the same as they were in 1986. The U.S. government has failed to keep up with the changing world and various immigration needs. One common argument against immigration reform is that “the U.S. system isn’t broken and immigrants should just get in line”. The reality is that there isn’t “a line” for most undocumented immigrants to stand in. The American Immigration Council explains that both temporary and permanent entry into the U.S. are usually limited to: employment, family reunification, or humanitarian needs. These categories seem broad and one would think they cover many immigrants; however, these categories are highly regulated and there are numerous limitations embedded in each one. Consequently, many undocumented immigrants do not qualify for asylum because they do not meet the humanitarian need requirements, cannot prove the specific familial ties or have eligible family sponsors that family reunification requires, and do not qualify for employment based legal status due to the requirement that employers be sponsors for immigrants before they arrive to the U.S.. Essentially, undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. do not have a way to become citizens or obtain visas. President Biden and the senate need to create additional and accessible citizenship and visa pathways for those already living in the U.S. and who do not qualify for one of the three main legal status pathways. This would not only allow undocumented immigrants obtain higher paying jobs and gain access to more educational opportunities/resources, but it would allow these individuals to live freely and do things that most people take for granted such as: getting a driver’s license, travel to see family, and accessing services like healthcare, banking, and social safety nets in case of hard times or uncontrollable circumstances (i.e. COVID-19). As of right now, the pathways to citizenship and visas are too restrictive. 

In addition, since 1986 the U.S. government has passed various temporary solutions for undocumented immigrants, but these solutions lead to nowhere for many. For example, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) are continuously challenged in courts, and even the supreme court, all while offering no pathway to permanent citizenship or legal status for recipients. On one hand TPS is supposed to be temporary and awarded to populations experiencing armed conflicts, environmental disasters, or other extraordinary temporary conditions, but many times TPS is renewed over and over again for populations which keeps them in a grey area until one day the U.S. government decides they can return to their home country. By this time, many have built livelihoods and may have started a family in the U.S.. DACA is another solution that keeps many individuals in a grey area. DACA was created under the Obama administration in hopes of giving legal protection to children who migrated to the U.S. with their parents. The requirements for DACA are mostly age related which does help cover many immigrants; however, similar to undocumented immigrants, DACA recipients fear deportation as well and have limited access to resources. Even though DACA guards recipients from deportation for the time being, there is a continuous battle within the courts to dismantle the program putting more than 600,000 individuals at risk of deportation. Many DACA recipients know the U.S. as their only home, attend higher education institutions, are entrepreneurs, and overall contribute to their community. DACA recipients usually cannot obtain a more permanent legal status because most do not have a family member who is a U.S. citizen or has a permanent legal status; therefore, DACA recipients do not have an eligible sponsor for a green card. Just as TPS recipients, DACA recipients build their lives in the U.S. and contribute to the economy and labor force just as native born Americans do, but without being recognized as U.S. citizens. Congress needs to create a pathway to citizenship for DACA and TPS recipients, that does not require an eligibility waiting period of any amount of time. According to the Center for American Progress, the average DACA recipient entered the U.S. in 1999 and around the age of 7. That means most DACA recipients have lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and are almost 30 years old. DACA recipients have put in the hard work to become contributing members of society, it is time for them to live without fear and have the ability to become citizens. 

What can you do to help?

Immigrants and their families are neighbors, coworkers, and friends, who are an integral part of helping communities flourish. At Refugees Welcome!, we unequivocally support immigration reform initiatives that benefit immigrant communities and their families. We also encourage individuals to become involved in the immigration sector. There are many steps that you can take to positively impact immigrant communities and show your support for immigration reform. First and foremost, become informed. Spend some time learning about how the U.S. immigration system has changed overtime and the shortcomings of it as well. Support organizations that provide services to immigrants (volunteering is always appreciated), support advocacy groups that are on the ground working to get immigration reform initiatives passed, and call your representatives or senator- phone calls are best because letters or emails are easier to set aside. However, the most important step you can take is to vote. It is extremely important to vote individuals into office that want to address our failing immigration system and those who understand the history of immigration in the U.S. Immigration reform will not come to fruition if apathetic individuals continue to be placed in offices. Please make sure you are registered to vote so you have the power to make changes on both the local and national level. 

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