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After the Amnesty: 20 years later

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Today Mr. Mazzoli defends the bill as the best way to combat illegal immigration at the time. The six administrations that followed, he says, are to blame for not enforcing tighter restrictions. And now, "It's déjà vu all over again," Mazzoli says. "These are the same issues that we had 20 years ago."

William King Jr., was the Western regional director of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and responsible for carrying out the amnesty program. He says that he had hope that the legislation would work at first. But IRCA was a three-legged stool, he says. One leg was employer sanctions, another was increased border security, and the third was the amnesty program. "In truth, only the amnesty program became a fact," he says, and the effort failed.

To John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit group that wants tighter immigration controls, IRCA was well intentioned – but implementation was lacking. "There was a half-hearted attempt at immigration control by the late '80s and early '90s by the old INS," he says, but political pressure brought that to a "screeching halt" by the middle of the decade.

One of the big problems with the IRCA amnesty was all the counterfeit applications, especially from seasonal agricultural workers. Economists Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny studied the effects of amnesty programs on undocumented immigration and presented their findings in the August 2003 issue of Demography magazine. They say that the number of seasonal workers qualifying for amnesty was about 300,000. But in the end, more than 1 million applications were granted. "Most people agree that there was substantial fraud because the document requirement and the residency requirement were quite low for that part of the program," Ms. Zavodny says.

"I don't think anyone says that it deterred illegal immigration," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group. "But it succeeded in legalizing 3 million people. Their wages went up, and they're fully integrated into American society."

Rohan Baichu / Houston
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