What a Reagan-Era Policy Can Teach Us About Immigration Reform Today

Immigrants look back on what's changed—and what hasn't changed—since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

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Apr 19 2016, 8:05pm

Stedroy Cleghorne (right) in 1976, a decade before the Immigration Reform and Control Act made it possible for him to become a permanent resident. Photo courtesy of Stedroy Cleghorne

Stedroy Cleghorne was a New Yorker. That's all he knew.

Sure, he had been born in Saint Kitts, a Caribbean island he distantly remembered from the first four years of his life. But he'd lived in Brooklyn since 1965, when he was four years old, and like many of his immigrant peers, he'd abandoned his accent in elementary school. "I never had an issue just blending in and being part of the American fabric," he remembers.

But when, in 1978, he decided to attend college to become a graphic artist, he realized he didn't have a Social Security number. When he asked his mother about it, she told him that she had been working with an immigration lawyer to obtain legal immigration status for him and his brother, but Cleghorne says "he pretty much was taking her money and not getting anything done."

Then he heard about a new immigration program, which legally recognized immigrants who had entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa, but who had established a life in the United States. Eager for better work and fed up with the family's immigration lawyer, he submitted an application for legal residency through the program, paid a fee, and received his green card a year later.

The program, known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), allowed an estimated 2.7 million immigrants to become permanent residents of the United States. For people like Cleghorne, the Reagan-era law unlocked doors to a host of new possibilities. He began a career as an illustrator and later took classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he's served as an assistant adjunct professor since 2002.

Stedroy Cleghorne. Photo by Jaime Vinas

Now, Cleghorne wants others to hear his story, to show that immigration reform is possible. He's one of the first IRCA recipients to share his experience as part of a new project, "Documented cIRCA '86: Immigration Reform Turns Thirty," which aims to turn back the clock three decades to gain perspective on the immigration debate today. A sample of what the project could become took place at CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan on Monday, when Cleghorne and three other panelists shared their personal experiences as part of the city's immigrant heritage week.

New York–based artist and writer Kayhan Irani, who is spearheading the project, said the 1986 amnesty program proves that a large-scale legalization program is feasible. "It's a reminder that we had dramatic immigration reform before," she told VICE. "We've legalized millions of undocumented immigrants, and our nation has been improved."

Of course, the national conversation around immigration has become more politically polarized since the 1980s: In the ongoing election cycle, Donald Trump has made xenophobia a centerpiece of his campaign; meanwhile, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to support President Obama's effort to grant deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants, policies that have infuriated Republicans in Congress.

Back in 1986, immigration was more of a "sidebar issue," according to Muzaffar Chishti, a director at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, DC. The partisan lines weren't so firmly drawn then—after all, it was Republican icon Ronald Reagan who signed IRCA into law. "Today, it's not a sidebar issue," said Chishti. "It's center stage in our political drama."

The "Documented cIRCA '86" project aims to cast some historical context on the present-day immigration debate, and show how the legalization program drastically improved life for immigrants. Surveys conducted in the years following the amnesty program found that formerly undocumented immigrants saw their hourly wages increase by an average of 15 percent by 1992, a sign that those workers moved to better jobs or bargained for higher salaries, according to Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Using the data from the Reagan amnesty as a guideline, Hinojosa-Ojeda estimated in a 2012 report for the Cato Institute that legalizing undocumented immigrants would expand the country's GDP by $1.5 trillion over a decade and raise wages for all US workers.

On Vice News: Whatever Happened to Immigration Reform?

Azadeh Khalili, the executive director of the Commission on Gender Equity in the mayor's office in NYC, told her own story of empowerment at the panel discussion this week. Born in Iran, Khalili moved to New York in 1978 at the age of 16, on a student visa. But after a group of Iranian students took over the US embassy in Tehran—an incident known as the Iran hostage crisis—her student visa wasn't renewed, and she was issued a deportation notice, which she believes was tied to her Iranian citizenship. "Going home was not an option given what was going on in the country," she told VICE in an email. "I was a rebellious political teenager, and my family didn't think that I would be safe."

She completed a bachelor's degree and worked a medley of jobs until she was able to apply for IRCA in 1987. "I was ecstatic," she said via email. "I could work legally and contribute to the American society above board without any fear of recrimination."

While IRCA recipients may look back at the program as a gateway to a better life in America, others view it as a policy failure. The law aimed to stop illegal immigration by imposing sanctions on employers who might hire undocumented workers, but a proliferation of fake documents, outsourcing employment to third-party contractors, and a lack of enforcement rendered the new regulations toothless. Since the amnesty, the number of undocumented immigrants in the US has only grown, going from an estimated 3 to 5 million in 1986 to roughly 11 million people today.

Related: Will the Supreme Court Finally Kill Obama's Immigration Reforms?

On one hand, immigration critics believe a large-scale legalization program shouldn't be repeated, since it's been proven ineffective once. On the other, immigrant advocates say it's time get people on the right side of the law, so they can more fully contribute to the economy. The stalemate has kept Congress from passing an immigration reform bill that would open the door to another mass legalization. In the absence of action from Congress, the Obama administration extended deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants through two programs, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), although the latter program has been frozen in place while the Supreme Court considers a legal challenge from Texas and 25 other Republican-led states.

While DACA and DAPA have helped, it's not a permanent solution, and many immigrants hope Congress will eventually pass something comparable to the Reagan-era amnesty. Mouhamed Kaba, who also participated in the "Documented cIRCA '86" panel on Monday, received his work authorization through DACA in 2013, but says he recognizes that the program is only a temporary solution.

"All of us are sons and daughters of immigrants," he said. "I'm hopeful that the next reform will be inclusive for all.

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