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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1986: Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Marion S. Trikosko, photographer Aliens, immigration & naturalization [raids, Illinois] 1977. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act (also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act or the Reagan Amnesty) and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in November 1986. This act introduced civil and criminal penalties to employers who knowingly hired undocumented immigrants or individuals unauthorized to work in the U.S. However, the act also offered legalization, which led to lawful permanent residence (LPR) and prospective naturalization to undocumented migrants, who entered the country prior to 1982. Farm workers who could validate at least ninety days of employment also qualified for lawful permanent residency.

U.S. law required qualified applicants, who had continuously resided in the U.S. since 1982, to apply within a one-year window, from May 1987 to May 1988, pay a fee, and provide extensive documentation, which included fingerprints, employment history, proof of continuous residency, and other documents. After 1986, U.S. law required hired employees to demonstrate work eligibility by filling out an I-9 form and submitting certifications of citizenship or work authorization. Applicants also had to complete interviews and medical examinations. Employers who failed to document 1-9 forms upon inspection were charged with warnings, fines, or criminal proceedings. The General Accounting Office (GAO) was also established to investigate employer discrimination against authorized immigrant workers.

An estimated 3 million individuals—mostly of Hispanic descent—gained legal status through IRCA, securing economic and social opportunities as legal residents of the United States and gaining protection from deportation. In an effort to halt unlawful crossings and unauthorized workers, the IRCA also approved increased border security resources, including higher budgets for the Border Patrol and the Department of Labor.


1970s Civil unrest in Central America leads to an increase of refugees in the United States.
1981 The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy proposes recommendations on the issue of unlawful immigration
January 1, 1982 Only those who entered the U.S. prior to January 1, 1982 are eligible to apply for IRCA benefits.
May 1985 The Immigration Reform and Control Act is introduced by Senator Alan Simpson and is passed by the Senate.
November 1986 The Immigration Reform and Control Act (Simpson-Mazzoli Act) is signed into law by President Reagan, and all employers are required to request Form I-9 to any employees hired.