The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, was signed by President Ronald Reagan on 6 November 1986. Congress enacted it to control unauthorized immigration to the US. Its main provisions were employer sanctions for hiring undocumented migrants, increased appropriations for border security, and a window of amnesty and legalization for some unauthorized immigrants already living in the US.
The cornerstone of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was the inclusion of employer sanctions. IRCA employer sanctions represented the greatest expansion of regulatory power since the enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1980 (OSHA). IRCA made three employer actions illegal. Knowingly hiring persons not authorized to be in the US was the most serious offense. Continued employment of unauthorized workers and hiring workers without correctly verifying their identity were also federal offenses.
In reaction to criticism that IRCA would make employers de facto immigration officials, the burden on employers was reduced to accepting documents that reasonably appeared to be genuine. Other critics believed that employers were not equipped to handle the screening of worker legal status, and that a national identification card should be adopted in the US. Later critics argued that employer sanctions under IRCA were not pursued aggressively enough.
Following passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, US Border Patrol staffing increased by fifty percent. There was also a sudden increase in the apprehension and return of unauthorized aliens entering from the US-Mexican border. Additional funding was set aside to expedite removal of unauthorized aliens having recently entered the country.
Approximately 2,650,000 undocumented immigrants were granted legal status under the provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It is still the largest legalization process in history. IRCA legalization was a two-step process. Undocumented immigrants who had lived in the US since before 1 January 1982 could apply for temporary legal status by 4 May 1988.
Temporary residents could become permanent “green card” residents after 18 months. During this 18-month period, temporary residents were ineligible for public benefits. At the permanent resident stage, temporary residents had to show the ability to speak the English language and a basic knowledge of American civics.
Statistically, about twelve percent of the immigrants who achieved temporary resident status did not go on to become permanent residents. It is not clear how many people denied temporary resident status remained in the US as unauthorized immigrants and how many returned to their country of origin. Policy analysts point out that there was no IRCA plan for those who did not qualify for temporary residency.