Authored by Cecilia Wang
Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA, or the Simpson–Mazzoli Act) had been introduced to the Senate since 1981. However, it took five years of debates until it was passed by the U.S. Congress. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 6, 1986. The IRCA has two major provisions that are of focus. Firstly, it established penalties for employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Second, it addressed legalized undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the country before January 1, 1982. By far, the IRCA has granted the largest scale of amnesty in U.S. history, since almost three million undocumented immigrants benefited from the legalization program.
Before the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed into law, Romano L. Mazzoli, the U.S. House of Representatives from Kentucky, as well as one of the cosponsors of the IRCA, sent an Appreciation Letter to Lydio F. Tomasi in 1983. Mazzoli’s correspondence letter stated that Lydio reflected “the willingness to accept and endorse the compromise nature of immigration reform legislation” in his editorial, which deserves widespread attention.
In 1982, Lydio Tomasi discussed the issue surrounding the Immigration Reform and Control Act in the editorial “Immigration Reform Now,” which was published in Migration Today. In his editorial, Father Lydio mentioned that “the exploitations of undocumented immigrants – whether by unscrupulous employers, crooked immigration counselors or slumlords – is the real problem […] Immigrant workers should bargain for themselves and protect themselves collectively by freely organizing in labor unions. First, however, some way must be found to bring the migratory movement of foreign labor out into the open, that is, to legalize it” (Tomasi 1982). Also, Father Lydio’s editorial reflected that the legalization of undocumented immigrant in IRCA is necessary, which balances restriction provisions with humanitarian concerns (Tomasi 1982).
According to the legislative history of IRCA, in the 1970s -1980s, public opinion polls consistently showed “the majority of Americans to be opposed to the concept of amnesty for the undocumented” (Calavita 1989, 24). Greenwood and McDowell (1985, 66) mentioned that the main reason behind the opposition of amnesty was due to the uncertain impact of the legalization on the U.S. economy: “once those undocumented immigrants are granted an adjustment to permanent resident status, these individuals may serve as sponsors for further legal entry by their relatives, since most current illegal aliens are generally believed to be poorly educated and low-skilled.”
However, later research has proven that the legalization program from IRCA has brought a positive impact to the U.S. in many ways. First, statistics from the U.S.-Mexico Border Patrol indicated that a proxy for illegal inflows fell from 1.6 million in 1986 to about 853,000 in 1989 (Orrenius and Zavodny 2012, 89). Moreover, Baker (2015, 1) found that about 60,000-480,000 fewer violent and property crimes committed each year following the IRCA legalization. Most importantly, the post-legalization training helped immigrants improve their working skills, which resulted in wage gains, reduced barriers to human capital accumulation, and brought a positive influence to the U.S. economic growth (Méndez et al. 2016).
Despite all the public opinions against to the concept of amnesty in 1980s, it appears that Father Lydio did an excellent job in understanding the necessity of legalizing undocumented aliens. By showing support of the legalization provision in IRCA through his editorial, Father Lydio reflected the Vincentian tradition of St. John’s University (2019), which was “the spirit of compassionate concern for others.” It is also worth mentioning that Father Lydio successfully and intuitively foresaw the benefit of the legalization provision in the Immigration Reform and Control Act in the year of 1982, which was four years prior to the IRCA officially being signed into law.
Baker, Scott R. 2015. “Effects of Immigrant Legalization on Crime.” The American Economic Review 105 (5): 210–13. doi:10.1257/aer.p20151041.
Calavita, Kitty. 1989. “The Contradictions of Immigration Lawmaking: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.” Law & Policy 11 (1): 17–47. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9930.1989.tb00019.x.
Greenwood, Michael J, and John M McDowell. 1985. “U.S. Immigration Reform: Policy Issues and Economic Analysis.” Contemporary Economic Policy 3 (3): 59–75. doi:10.1111/j.1465-7287.1985.tb00808.x.
Méndez, Fabio, Sepúlveda Facundo, and Valdés Nieves. 2016. “Legalization and Human Capital Accumulation.” Journal of Population Economics: International Research on the Economics of Population, Household, and Human Resources 29 (3): 721–56. doi:10.1007/s00148-016-0585-0.
Orrenius, Pia M. and Madeline Zavodny. 2012. “The Economic Consequences of Amnesty for Unauthorized Immigrants.” Cato Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1. 2012. https://mronline.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/cj32n1-7.pdf
St. John’s University. 2019. “Our Mission.” History & Facts. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission.
Tomasi, Lydio F. 1982. “Immigration Reform Now.” Migration Today. Vol. X, No. 5. 1982.