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After the Amnesty: 20 years later

In 1986, the US government offered amnesty – legal status – to 3 million illegal immigrants. Here are seven of their stories.

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Twenty years ago Monday, Congress passed the largest effort to date to curb undocumented immigration to this country. Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), employers were sanctioned for the first time for hiring undocumented workers. The bill also called for tighter controls along the Mexican border. But the bill was a compromise: Enforcement was balanced by an amnesty provision.

Under IRCA, undocumented immigrants who had lived in the United States prior to 1982 and those who had worked as seasonal agricultural workers before May 1986 could seek legal status and eventually US citizenship.

Nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants were granted legal residence under the amnesty. Most of them were Mexican (more than 80 percent) and lived in the Los Angeles area. Salvadorans, Filipinos, Haitians, Poles, and Vietnamese also benefited from the program.

But two decades later, illegal immigration is still a hot-button issue and amnesty is a dirty word to some. Private-citizen minutemen and National Guardsmen have rushed to the Mexican border. This spring, millions of undocumented immigrants and others marched in the streets of US cities to protest federal legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants.

It's an issue that may reignite if a new Congress picks up the debate this coming January.

Amid the shouts of today are decades-old echoes from the IRCA.

Critics say the bill set a damaging precedent for future amnesties. IRCA supporters say the word "amnesty" mischaracterizes the bill's intent.

"An amnesty cleans people who have broken the law," says former US Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky. He and former US Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming were the primary architects and cosponsors of IRCA. "But in our bill, you had to prove that you were a law-abiding person who honored the institutions of our country.... So you can take your pick of euphemisms, but if you use the word 'amnesty,' people will get angry, throw their hands up in the air, and scream: 'They're rewarding people for misbehaving!' "


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