The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) is an Act of Congress that has determined U.S. policy on immigration for almost thirty years. Also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, the IRCA was enacted on November 6, 1986 under the Reagan administration.


The IRCA came as a response to the pressing problem of illegal or undocumented immigrants in the United States, which were then estimated to number more than 3 million. The law was supposed to put an end to illegal immigration by providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while discouraging future illegal immigration by enforcing both internal control and border protection.

What happened instead was the opposite of what the law intended; in the past two and a half decades since IRCA, the number of unauthorized immigrants has soared from 5 million to more than 11 million. Today, many people remember the law for the loopholes it was beleaguered with and the amnesties that were granted starting with the first 2 million plus undocumented immigrants.

When the law was first introduced, it did not immediately get the approval of the House and the Senate Judiciary Committee but there was a strong and continuous lobby by civil rights and human rights advocates who brought up the constant possibility of discrimination and abuse against undocumented workers. In addition to this lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed sanctions against employer and growers lobbied for leeway in the matter of hiring foreign labor.

Provisions and Salient Features

One of the outstanding features of the law was that it criminalized the act of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and established stipulated punishments. It introduced the I-9 form, which employers filed to attest that all their employees had presented documentary proof to show their legal eligibility to work in the United States.

The rationale behind this was that it would make employment more difficult for illegal immigrants and would discourage and eventually reduce undocumented immigration. However, sanctions only applied to employers with more than three employees who did not make enough of an effort to find out if their workers indeed had legal status. Later, employees were relieved of the obligation to verify the authenticity of their employee’s documents. In addition, the phenomenon called subcontracting entered the labor scenario and many employers were able to do away with the chore of checking their employee’s immigration status.

In summary, the act was passed with the following salient features:

• It required employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status.
• It became illegal to knowingly hire or recruit unauthorized immigrants.
• It legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants.
• It legalized illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously with the penalty of a fine, payment of back taxes and admission of guilt. About three million illegal immigrants were granted legal status.

The Economic Impact on the Labor Market

The IRCA’s restrictions on employing illegals did not succeed in discouraging people from entering or staying in the United States without the legal documents to do so. Employment opportunities continued to attract people outside of the United States although this was often done through a subcontracting agreement where a U.S. citizen or resident alien would contractually agree with an employer to provide a specific number of workers for a certain period of time to undertake a defined task at a fixed rate of pay per worker. This removed liability from employers and allowed growers their source of foreign workers.

Assessment of the Law

As immigration reform is discussed today, it is worth looking back to the last major legalization program in the U.S. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) provided 2.7 million undocumented people a pathway to citizenship and penalized employers who knowingly hired those without a legal work permit. However, after it failed to solve the problem of illegal immigrants, the proposed bill today is going through a protracted legislative process because nobody is willing to commit the same mistakes.