Congress hasn’t succeeded in passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill since the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, 36 years ago.

The main reason seems to be that Republicans and Democrats have different immigration priorities. Republicans emphasize border security and the removal of migrants who are in the country illegally, while Democrats emphasize paths to legal status for the migrants who are here illegally.

The sponsors of IRCA were able to obtain bipartisan support by reconciling these conflicting priorities with what they referred to as a “three-legged stool.”
  • Leg one was securing the border and eliminating the job magnet that attracted illegal border crossers;
  • Leg two was an H-2A temporary worker program to meet the need for agricultural workers; and
  • Leg three was a legalization program that would allow undocumented immigrants who were living and working here to regularize their unlawful status and begin a long process to earn temporary residency and, eventually, permanent residency and citizenship.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, IRCA was 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 to prevent a new group of undocumented migrants from taking the place of the ones who were legalized.

It didn’t work. Approximately 2.7 million undocumented migrants were legalized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the employer sanctions and border security provisions were never fully implemented. Ten years after IRCA was enacted, there were 5.8 million undocumented migrants.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Republicans have opposedlegislation without measures ramping up border security and interior enforcement.

Is another three-legged stool agreement possible?


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.