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The Truth about Amnesty for Immigrants

“Amnesty” has become one of the dirtiest words in U.S. politics.  Immigration opponents use it to attack any plan — however restrictive and punitive — to regularize the status of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.  Immigration advocates avoid the word, substituting euphemisms like “a path to citizenship.”

Amnesty’s big problem is the bad reputation it got from a provision in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, or IRCA, that opened the way for some 2.7 million immigrants to obtain legal status.  The 1986 amnesty has been a favorite whipping boy for immigration restrictionists ever since.

A New York Times editorial from February 2000 sums up the general attitude.  Amnesties “beget more illegal immigration,” the editors wrote.  “Demographers trace the doubling of the number of Mexican immigrants since 1990 in part to the amnesty of the 1980’s.  Amnesties signal foreign workers that American citizenship can be had by sneaking across the border, or staying beyond the term of one’s visa, and hiding out until Congress passes the next amnesty.”  The resulting increase in the supply of unskilled workers then depresses the wages of native-born workers with similar skill levels, according to the editorial.  The AFL-CIO had just come out for a new amnesty, the Times noted, but this was a “hasty call” that would be “unfair to unskilled workers already in the United States.”1

As so often happens in discussions of immigration, people generally fail to ask whether there’s any evidence for the restrictionists’ claims.

“Begetting Illegal Immigration”?

It is certainly true that the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States grew dramatically during the 15 years after the passage of IRCA, but demographic studies don’t indicate that the legalization contributed significantly to this.  Instead, they show that the trend started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, well before the 1986 amnesty was legislated.

In 2003 economists Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny published results from a study they had done on government apprehensions of people attempting to enter the United States from Mexico during the 1969-1996 period.  “We did not find that IRCA stimulated illegal immigration in the hopes of receiving amnesty,” the authors concluded, although they also “did not find that the law discouraged undocumented migration in the long run.”  Their study pointed to an entirely different reason for fluctuations in unauthorized immigration: economic changes in the countries the immigrants come from.  “Apprehensions declined when the real average manufacturing wage in Mexico rose,” the authors wrote, “with a 10 percent increase in the wage lowering apprehensions by about 3.3 percent.”2

Immigration opponents regularly cite a report released in 2000 by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (the INS, replaced in 2003 by three agencies of the new Homeland Security Department).  This report shows a spike in unauthorized immigration in 1988-1990, apparently because of family members coming to join newly legalized immigrants.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, cited the report in October 2000 to claim that “[i]llegal immigration skyrocketed after the massive 1986 amnesty for illegal aliens.”  Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the DC-based Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for reduced immigration, wrote an article about the report for the center’s website, and Mark Krikorian, the center’s executive director, cited the report in a 2004 National Review article against amnesty; these articles in turn are themselves cited repeatedly on the Internet.3

But the INS report didn’t in fact say amnesty was the reason that immigration “skyrocketed.”  Instead, it suggested that the post-IRCA spike was actually a one-time event with little or no effect on overall immigration patterns.  “[E]stimated unauthorized immigration increased considerably in 1988 and 1989, then dropped significantly in the early 1990s,” report author Robert Warren wrote.  “What is uncertain is the extent to which these fluctuations were due to the passage of IRCA — perhaps suppressing the flow in 1987 and stimulating it in 1988 and 1989 — or were the resumption of unauthorized immigration to pre-IRCA levels.”4

“Depressing Wages. . .”

Since the demographic studies indicate that the 1986 amnesty had minimal effect on immigration patterns, there is clearly no basis for the claim that IRCA depressed wages by dramatically increasing immigration.  The actual evidence, almost always ignored in the mainstream immigration debate, points in exactly the opposite direction: amnesty significantly raised the wages of the newly legalized immigrants, probably resulting in an upward pressure on the wages of native-born workers.

Common sense tells us that a worker without legal status is less likely to demand better wages and working conditions or to leave an abusive employer to look for a better job.  It follows that legalization will lead to an increase in the worker’s wages.  Even the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies acknowledges this.5  And indeed, a study by the Labor Department found that workers who gained legal status from the 1986 amnesty averaged an increase of 15 percent in real wages from 1987/88 to 1992.  This was after years of virtually no wage increases for these workers, and it came during a period in which rising inflation and the 1990-1991 recession drove down real wages for most U.S. workers by an average 4 percent.6

Of course some of the immigrants’ wage increase resulted from their increased experience, education, and English proficiency over the five-year period (although even this was partly because the 1986 law required applicants for amnesty to take English and civics classes).  In a 1999 article Columbia University economist Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz used a survey of a group of newly legalized Mexican workers to calculate how much of their wage increase came directly from the amnesty.

The men in the study saw their real hourly wages go up by 15 percent from 1987 to 1992, while the increase for women was 21 percent.  Rivera-Batiz found that about 56 percent of the increase for the men couldn’t be accounted for by factors like experience and education; the number was 62 percent for the women.  In other words, the 1986 amnesty probably raised real wages for these immigrants by more than 8 percent for men and by 13 percent for the women — indicating that “illegal” status is one of the main reasons for low wages among undocumented immigrants.7

Immigration opponents constantly remind us that competition from low-wage immigrants tends to depress wages for other workers, but they rarely mention the corollary: that a wage hike for immigrant workers creates upward pressure on pay for the native born.

It is difficult to measure what positive effect the 1986 amnesty for immigrants may have had on the wages of other workers.  As noted before, average real wages went down during the five years after 1986, and the situation was even worse for the native-born workers in direct competition with immigrants — real wages fell by 10.3 percent from 1987 to 1995 for workers with less than a high-school education.  This continued a long-term trend caused by the elimination of many higher-paying industrial jobs in the 1980s and the outsourcing of many others.  Real wages for high-school dropouts had gone down by 8.4 percent from 1979 to 1987.8  This trend was too strong to be significantly affected by the amnesty.

Adding to the downward pressure was the continuing arrival of easily exploited undocumented immigrants in the job market.  And these new immigrants were now even more easily exploited, thanks to another feature of the 1986 immigration law — new enforcement measures such as the sanctions against employers who knowingly hire out-of-status workers.

Prof. Rivera-Batiz’s study found that by 1992 the new undocumented workers were paid much worse than similar workers had been before employer sanctions went into effect.  Male Mexican workers with documents were now making about 41.8 percent more than undocumented Mexican men, and Rivera-Batiz found that 51.3 percent of this difference couldn’t be explained by factors like experience and English proficiency.  So by 1992 the lack of legal status apparently meant a 21 percent difference in pay for these men, more than double what it was before IRCA; the difference was about 23 percent for the women in the survey.9

The evidence is that if the 1986 immigration law had a negative effect on wages, it didn’t come from the amnesty — it came from the enforcement measures.

. . . Or Economic Stimulus?

Even if it’s not possible to measure the upward pressure on average wages from the 1986 amnesty, we can be sure that an amnesty now would have a much stronger effect.  More than 7 million workers, about 4.5 percent of the labor force, would be eligible for amnesty now, as opposed to some 2 million in 1986, less than 2 percent of the labor force then.  And the difference an amnesty would make for their wages now would be about twice what it was in the 1980s.

Another major difference is organized labor’s current position on immigration — the same position that the New York Times denounced in February 2000 as a “hasty call.”  After decades of supporting enforcement policies, the AFL-CIO is now officially committed to organizing immigrants.  Many rank-and-file labor activists have also come to understand the need for solidarity with their foreign-born coworkers.  A legalization law at this point could help spark a new wave of union organizing that would improve wages and conditions for both immigrants and the native born.

A study in 2001 by the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California, Los Angeles projected that an amnesty then would produce a tendency for wages to rise by 5 percent in agriculture, by 2.75 percent in services, and by 2.5 percent in manufacturing.  In a study published this year, UCLA professor Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, who headed the group that produced the earlier report, projects that legalization now “would result in a net income rise of $30-36 billion, support 750,000-900,000 new jobs, and generate $4.5 to 5.4 billion in net tax revenue.”  He calls legalization a “necessary component” in any effort to stimulate the economy in the current crisis.10

The irony of amnesty is that working people in this country would support it overwhelmingly if they knew the truth about it.  The fact that the word itself has become unmentionable is a triumph of negative marketing by the corporate media, comparable to the PR campaign that made meaningful health care reform anathema to many of the people whose lives literally depend on it.

Pressure from the economic crisis has allowed a certain amount of reality to seep into the media’s immigration coverage.  Two New York Times editorials this year have noted that an amnesty would increase the earning power of U.S. workers; one cited Prof. Ojeda-Hinojosa’s research.11  But immigrants and their allies can do much more to advance their cause.  The crisis has taught people to be skeptical about conventional wisdom and has opened their minds to new ideas.  Activists for health care have helped create strong grassroots support for reform despite the corporate propaganda against “socialized medicine” — it’s time to do something similar for amnesty.


1  “Hasty Call for Amnesty,”  New York Times, February 22, 2000.

2  Pia M. Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, “Do Amnesty Programs Reduce Undocumented Immigration? Evidence from IRCA,” Demography, Volume 40, Number 3, August 2003, 438, 446.  A slightly different version of the article — “Do Amnesty Programs Encourage Illegal Immigration?  Evidence from IRCA,” Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, October 2001 — is available on the internet at: <>.

3  Lamar Smith Press Conference Statement on Amnesty, October 12, 2000, <,1013-Amnesty.shtm>; Mark Krikorian, “Amnesty, Again: This Country Should Have Learned — Apparently, It Has Not,” National Review, January 26, 2004; and Steven A. Camarota, “New INS Report: 1986 Amnesty Increased Illegal Immigration,” Center for Immigration Studies, October 12, 2000.

4  Robert Warren, “Annual Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States and Components of Change: 1987 to 1997,” U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, undated, p. 22.  Despite being cited so often, this INS report is not easy to access.  It was posted to Rep. Smith’s website, but the link no longer worked as of December 2008.  A letter to Smith’s office received no response.  Mr. Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies provided me with a copy of what he and Mr. Warren believe is the original report.

5  Steven A. Camarota, “The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget,” Center for Immigration Studies, August, 2004.

6  Shirley J. Smith, Roger G. Kramer, Audrey Singer, Effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, Volume 1, Characteristics and Labor Market Behavior of the Legalized Population Five Years Following Legalization, U.S. Department of Labor, 1996, 43.

7  Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz, “Undocumented Workers in the Labor Market: An Analysis of the Earnings of Legal and Illegal Mexican Immigrants in the United States,” Journal of Population Economics, vol. 12(1), 1999, 110, 112.

8  David H. Autor, Lawrence F. Katz and Melissa S. Kearney, “Trends in U.S. Wage Inequality: Revising the Revisionists,” Review of Economics and Statistics, May 2008, 305.

9  Rivera-Batiz, 100, 106.  Similar results appear in Julie A. Phillips and Douglas A. Massey, “The New Labor Market: Immigrants and Wages After IRCA,” Demography, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 1999), 244.

10  Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, Robert McCleery, Enrico Marcelli, Fernando de Paolis, David Runsten, Marysol Sanchez, “Comprehensive Migration Policy Reform in North America: The Key to Sustainable and Equitable Economic Integration,” North American Integration and Development Center, School of Public Policy and Social Research, University of California, Los Angeles, August 29, 2001, 28, 30; Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, “Reforming U.S. Immigration: Economic Stimulus through Legalization,” Class Action, January 23, 2009; and  “Economic Stimulus through Legalization,” William C. Velázquez Institute white paper, undated, <

11  “Helping Workers in Hard Times,” New York Times, February 14, 2009; “Immigration and the Unions,” New York Times, April 20, 2009.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).

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