Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) may be the only Republican who has ever introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill with major legalization programs. She calls it, “the Dignity Act,” and says it would secure our border, provide a dignified solution for undocumented immigrants, and support American workers.

And she applied take-aways she got from studying the last comprehensive immigration reform bill to be enacted with such expansive legalization programs, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986.

The first take-away is that only a third of the almost 3 million undocumented immigrants the IRCA legalized actually became citizens: the other 2 million were content to have a legal status that allowed them to live and work in the United States without fear of being deported.

Consequently, the bill’s major legalization program does not start out with a grant of lawful permanent resident status. It provides temporary legal status that just permits participants to live and work in the United States without fear of being deported. Then, after being in the program for 10 years, participants would be offered a choice between continuing temporary status indefinitely and a five-year program that would lead to permanent resident status.

Her other take-away is that the failure to implement IRCA’s border security and enforcement provisions permitted the undocumented population to grow out of control again.

Unfortunately, she didn’t go far enough with her attempt to deal with this problem, and this is likely to prevent her bill from being passed.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, IRCA’s legalization programs were supposed to be a one-time measure that would deal with illegal immigration by “wiping the slate clean” and implementing border security and enforcement measures that would prevent a new group of undocumented immigrants from taking the place of the ones who were legalized.

The legalization programs were established right away, but the border security and enforcement measures were never implemented. The 2.7 million undocumented immigrants that IRCA legalized were replaced by a new group of more than 5 million undocumented immigrants within 10 years.


Published originally on The Hill.

Nolan Rappaport was detailed to the House Judiciary Committee as an Executive Branch Immigration Law Expert for three years. He subsequently served as an immigration counsel for the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims for four years. Prior to working on the Judiciary Committee, he wrote decisions for the Board of Immigration Appeals for 20 years. Follow him at