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The Context and Consequences of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)  

Frank D. Bean and Thoa V. Khuu

The United States often views itself as a nation of immigrants. This may in part be why since the early 20th century the country has seldom adopted major changes in its immigration policy. Until 1986, only the 1924 National Origins Quota Act, its dismantlement in the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, involved far-reaching reforms. Another large shift occurred with the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and its derivative sequel, the 1990 Immigration Act. No major immigration legislation has yet won congressional approval in the 21st century. IRCA emerged from and followed in considerable measure the recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1979–1981). That body sought to reconcile two competing political constituencies, one favoring the restriction of immigration, or at least unauthorized immigration, and the other an expansion of family-based and work-related migration. The IRCA legislation contained something for each side: the passage of employer sanctions, or serious penalties on employers for hiring unauthorized workers, for the restriction side; and the provision of a legalization program, which outlined a pathway for certain unauthorized entrants to obtain green cards and eventually citizenship, for the reform side. The complete legislative package also included other provisions: including criteria allowing the admission of agricultural workers, a measure providing financial assistance to states for the costs they would incur from migrants legalizing, a requirement that states develop ways to verify that migrants were eligible for welfare benefits, and a provision providing substantial boosts in funding for border enforcement activities. In the years after the enactment of IRCA, research has revealed that the two major compromise provisions, together with the agricultural workers provision, generated mixed results. Employer sanctions failed to curtail unauthorized migration much, in all likelihood because of minimal funding for enforcement, while legalization and the agricultural measures resulted in widespread enrollment, with almost all of the unauthorized migrants who qualified coming forward to take advantage of the opportunity to become U.S. legalized permanent residents (LPRs). But when the agricultural workers provisions allowing entry of temporary workers are juxtaposed with the relatively unenforceable employer-sanctions provisions, IRCA entailed contradictory elements that created frustration for some observers. In sociocultural, political, and historical terms, scholars and others can interpret IRCA’s legalization as reflecting the inclusive, pluralistic, and expansionist tendencies characteristic of much of 18th-century U.S. immigration. But some of IRCA’s other elements led to contradictory effects, with restriction efforts being offset by the allowances for more temporary workers. This helped to spawn subsequent political pressures in favor of new restrictive or exclusive immigration controls that created serious hazards for immigrants.


Latinx Criminality  

Max Felker-Kantor

Latinx criminality was a product of racialized policing and policies that constructed various Latinx groups as foreign threats over the course of American history. Crime was not an objective category but one produced by policing, vigilantism, border enforcement, and immigration policy, all of which both relied on and produced dominant beliefs of Latinx criminality. Latinxs were racialized as criminal and foreign enemies to be variously eliminated or contained beginning before the Mexican-American War and continuing with the integration of immigration enforcement and criminal justice, known as crimmigration, in the 21st century. The intertwined process of racialization and criminalization evolved over time, from the conquest of Mexico driven by Manifest Destiny to colonial projects in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War to the Texas Rangers’ assaults on Mexicans during the Mexican Revolution; from the repatriation campaigns in the 1930s to the social movements of the 1960s; and from the refugee and asylum crisis in the 1980s to the antiimmigrant nativism of the 1990s and 2000s. In each of these eras, policing practices built on the deep racial scripts that were deployed to construct different Latinx groups as potential criminals. While ethnic Mexicans in the Southwest bore the brunt of racist policing and criminalization during the 19th and first half of the 20th century, demographic changes resulting from new migration streams, American imperial ambitions in the 1890s, and Cold War interventions ensured that other Latinx groups, such as Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Cubans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans, were subjected to racialized policing and criminalization. In the process, the logic of racist assumptions about the criminality of people of Mexican descent born out of America’s ideological belief in its Manifest Destiny easily translated to the criminalization of other Latinx groups. The framework of racial scripts explains this common process of racialization and criminalization. Although the nature of policing and criminalization shifted over time and targeted different Latinx groups in different ways, Anglo-Americans continually displaced their fears of “foreign threats” onto racialized others, making Latinxs into “criminals” through punitive policies, scapegoating, and policing.