1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a.k.a. the Simpson-Mazzoli Act

And what was going on in the United States in 1986 besides big hair, parachute pants, the Iran-Contra debacle of the Reagan administration, and Falco, the one hit wonder with “Rock Me Amadeus”? Well, Congress was getting together with President Reagan for his signature on the new immigration reform bill called the “Simpson-Mazzoli Act”. Considering this mammoth piece of legislative effort contains over 41,000 words, the gringa will stick to the facts that resulted in significant change for the immigrant and American society.

It is interesting to note that today’s “undocumented worker” was yesterday’s “illegal alien” and also was the “unauthorized alien” of the 80’s. These immigrants who were already present in the country in 1986 could apply and gain legal status according to certain guidelines:

  • Immigrants had to provide proof of residency and employment since January 1, 1982
  • Immigrants had to have a clean criminal record (a felony and/or 3+ misdemeanors got you the reject notice)
  • Immigrants had to provide proof of registering with Selective Service
  • Immigrants had to meet a minimal level of understanding of U.S. history, government and the English language or be enrolled in these courses of study (if you were 65 years old or older they let you slide on this requirement).
  • Immigrants must apply within 18 months of the passage of the bill

The bill also contained provisions of temporary resident travel so these new temporary resident aliens could legally return to their countries of origin and visit family and return to the United States. The gringa is proud of this particular provision and the humanitarian recognition by the United States of maintaining healthy family bonds and connections. The Attorney General also had the freedom to waive certain requirements if it was in the interest of family unity. The gringa is certain that the United States is on the right track here.

Once an immigrant became a lawful temporary U.S. resident, they were disqualified from federally funded public welfare for five years. The gringa is sure this provision was included to satisfy the xenophobes who just KNEW these folks only wanted to come to America in order to freeload! However, individual State programs that had National School Lunch programs, vocational education programs, Headstart programs, and their own health services, as well as Social Security benefits individuals may qualify for, were not prohibited.

Because this immigration reform legalized many workers, the bill outlawed the practice of any employer hiring an unauthorized alien. However, enforcement of this provision was to be deferred during agricultural seasonal services. Hey, when the country’s gotta eat, we should all just look away, right? The gringa then must ask, “What’s an immigrant hopeful to think?” I mean really, come on, think this one through with some common sense. If it was common knowledge within the immigrant community the U.S. law meant that you could enter undocumented and law enforcement would simply ignore you if you happened to arrive at the right time of the year, what would you do? If you are an opportunity deprived and economically oppressed individual, you choose the cheapest, shortest and quickest way to get into the land of opportunity. You enter during the agricultural harvest season when the nation puts out the welcome mat and simply stay. You keep your head down part of the year and walk around boldly the rest of the year. The United States is in no position to criticize immigrants for taking advantage of the law of the land! The nation can’t be willing to turn a blind eye when it’s convenient for their belly then turn around and point the finger and blame the immigrant and ask them, “What the hell are you doing here?!”

Migrant agricultural workers who entered the nation seasonally were considered separate from the unauthorized aliens who met the above conditions. The migrant workers had a different visa with different qualifying guidelines. For the xenophobes who complain that immigrants come to this country and steal American jobs, consider this requirement of migrant worker guidelines: “Requires an employer H-2A visa petition to certify that: (1) there are not enough local U.S. workers for the job; and (2) similarly employed U.S. workers’ wages and working conditions will not be adversely affected.” It seems that plenty of jobs are available in the agricultural industry but Americans refuse the opportunity. So, don’t be pointing the “Stealing American Jobs” finger at the immigrant. This provision put the American first only allowing immigrants to fill the position when Americans refused. Also, fearful xenophobes, consider President Reagan’s 1977 radio broadcast statement, ““It makes one wonder about the illegal alien fuss. Are great numbers of our unemployed really victims of the illegal alien invasion or are those illegal tourists actually doing work our own people won’t do?” Way back then even the Gipper got it! Anti-immigration folks are recycling the same old arguments and, time after time, they are proven wrong.

One interesting stipulation regarding discrimination has the gringa scratching her head and tsk-tsking. The bill says it would be considered “unfair” for an employer to discriminate against an individual in hiring practices based on origin or citizenship. However, it would be considered NOT “unfair” if an employer preferred to hire a U.S. citizen or national rather than an equally qualified resident alien. The gringa asks, “Does not one of these statements negate the other?” Geniuses and Washington, the two do not go hand in hand. The gringa says, “Just one more law in favor of American laborers and protecting their right to work over the immigrant to use in an argument to shut up and shut down the anti-immigrant xenophobe crowd.” Mmph, take that!

For migrant workers, though, there was still an option to obtain residency status. During the 18 month registration period established by this bill, if they worked 90 days within one year in the agricultural industry they qualified for temporary residency and could travel between the U.S. and their country of origin. During the first five years of their new status, migrant workers are considered “eligible legalized aliens” and do have access to Federal assistance as well as state assistance for the first five years of their new status. Migrant workers were also entitled to legal assistance.

Cuban and Haitian entrants were granted permanent resident status if they arrived before January 1, 1982. This was because many of these immigrants were political refugees.

Considering the disaster of American children whose native mother was not married to an American G.I. and was left behind in Indochina in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Cambodia conflict, the gringa is pleased to find that the U.S. was more socially evolved in 1986. Children qualified for status, benefits and privileges if even one parent obtains resident status, regardless of the marital position of the child’s parents.

All in all, close to 3 million immigrants were legalized. This is a significant chapter in American immigration history. However, according to the numbers, about 2 million unauthorized aliens were left running around America without proper “authorization”. Some of these didn’t qualify, so, everyone just assumed they would eventually get deported. Others would have qualified but didn’t know a thing about the program. No one really had a back up plan for this eventuality. The gringa is not surprised. I’m sure Reagan and Congress thought, “We’ve done enough. That headache can be for the next administration.” Yes, U.S. government, how the wheels turn.

Critics of this legislation called it “amnesty”.  The real definition of amnesty is “an official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses”. The gringa’s not sure that the term “amnesty” applies. Perhaps a better term for a path to citizenship would be “the right thing” or, maybe, “the smart thing” or, “humanity at its best”. Regardless of what you call it, there were plenty of critics then and now who considered it a big, fat failure because illegal immigrants poured into the country after its passage. The fantasy was, the gringa supposes, that politicians thought after the passage of this bill, somehow, by some miracle, there would never be another unauthorized alien that would enter the country. The gringa can only guess that perhaps they thought the immigrants that were here were the only ones that would ever want to be here and no other immigrants would arrive in the future. What a bunch of dummies.

The gringa thinks they should have expected immigrant hopefuls around the world to jump up and take notice and point their finger toward America, wide-eyed as they exclaimed, “DID YOU SEE THAT! THAT COULD BE ME!” And off they go, running as fast as their little foreign feet can carry them to the Home of the Free and the Land of the Brave. With a path to citizenship laid out and easy to qualify for, of course hopefuls would hotfoot it across the border if given the chance.

The gringa thinks the problem was not with the legislation. The gringa thinks the problem was with the lack of preparedness. It should have been, sign the bill then yell, “Katie, bar the door!” They should have seen it coming! Big sillies! They needed to have a stronger presence on the border. Why didn’t they? Money, of course. Even though there was a provision to beef up border security by 50%, it seems they still didn’t spend enough money! Or, quite possibly, as often happens in bureaucracies, the money was mismanaged. All you xenophobes who are crying about border security, well, its gonna cost you. Are you willing to pay? That means taxes to fund it. Take a look at your paycheck stub. Are you still willing to pay?

Another reason illegals continued to flood into the country is because the framers just weren’t good planners. The bill was not a failure as critics claim when they point to the fact that illegal immigration was never eradicated, but actually increased. It’s because the bill didn’t go far enough. It never occurred to the framers of the legislation that the country might just continue to grow and need more laborers. Just like any good capitalist free market system ruled by supply and demand, the U.S. labor market demanded laborers and the nation’s southern neighbors were only too happy to supply them. And that is the very reason we need immigration reform now. Most of these people are here to work and raise their families and educate themselves and their children. They need to be able to come out of the shadows and live with security as proud American citizens.

For today’s critics of amnesty who treat it like it’s a dirty word, listen to the words of a wise humanitarian: “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Ronald Reagan, in a 1984 televised debate with Walter Mondale. Former Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson’s opinion on amnesty? “Anybody who’s here illegally is going to be abused in some way, either financially [or] physically. They have no rights.” How do today’s Republicans feel about Obama’s efforts to bring about meaningful immigration reform? Well, just listen to what Mitch McConnell had to say: “…take amnesty off the table…”

So, then, what really happens with the issue of immigration reform? Politicians stick to their tried-and-true methods of old. When their voter base is raising hell, but the politician is too afraid to tackle the realities of legislation that affects the lives of millions of people, they worry more about getting re-elected. They don’t really care about the plight of an oppressed, unrepresented class of people who are not registered to vote. It is safer for the politician to stir up constituents with anger toward the immigrant so the voters won’t ask for immigration reform, but, rather, just scream for mass deportation. But, the politician doesn’t want to do that either. I mean, think about it. If cowardly politicians actually started deporting people, deportees may have loved ones in the community that DO vote. Politicians don’t want to risk losing that potential vote. If the politician treads the murky waters of immigration reform with legalization in mind, he alienates xenophobes, racists and labor unions from his voter base. If he goes hard line on immigration reform, he risks alienating the voters of ethnic groups who see members of their own national origin being rounded up and oppressed. What’s a vote-hungry, cowardly politician to do? He continues to stir up fear, because fear mongering directs everyone to the subject of border control. It’s much safer for the politician to support funding of border security than deal with millions of human beings. So, basically, the United States never sees meaningful immigration reform because the politicians are cowards.

The gringa remains hopeful that in Obama’s lame duck years he will deliver on immigration reform because he doesn’t give a hoot about pandering for a vote. He is in the strongest position to do the right thing. He has managed to deliver on some other controversial, hot button issues. The gringa still has faith and sits on the edge of her seat to see what happens. In closing, the gringa defers to the wise words of President Reagan who remained a friend to the immigrant to the very day he left office in 1989 when he said this: “I’ve spoken of a shining city all my political life but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”



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Photo credit:  www.fusion.net

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A barrio gringa with a dream of cosmic proportions: writing to satiate my insatiable curiosity, worldwide literacy beginning with our youth, and to be the first barrio gringa to explore outer space!

6 thoughts on “1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, a.k.a. the Simpson-Mazzoli Act”

  1. I am really happy that you stopped by my blog and liked my paintings because now I have the opportunity to read your articles on immigration….about which I have been thinking (and painting) since a trip to Yuma late last year where I met a man working as a park employee at the old historical prison. He was vivacious, happily pointing tourists to the main attractions and gift shop articles–mentioning, in passing, that this job (proudly) removed him from the fields and gave him a higher status. As it was November, the fields around Yuma were filled with pickers. It started me thinking about something my grandmother had mentioned when I was very young about “braceros.” (circa WWII). Flash forward — and this is my take on the situation, we have a situation where we have a lot of people who should be working (but instead collect government assistance), and could work in the agricultural industry (as pickers), but their desire to receive benefits for doing nothing much outweighs their need to work to survive — which is not the case south of the border. We could not, as a nation, force welfare recipients to work in the fields to pick our food! Think of it! Forcing people to accept such jobs! It’s just not correct…it would be like, ah, slavery! Instead, let the “illegals” in the country, take jobs in the field (so we can eat) and don’t do anything about it but pretend to be doing something! (see my painting, Immigration: Creation of the 4th class) Then look at the Bracero program …. I’d be interested in your opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did a July 8 blog post on the Braceros if you want to scroll down & check it out. The immigration articles are in chronological order of their passage. There were 2 immigration reform bills in 1943, the Bracero Appropriations was one of those bills. And… love your work, muy mucho!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First off, I want to take this moment to Thank you personally for following my blog and I am here to follow yours. Especially after this well written, insightful post.

    Now, by way of introduction, this Joker is labeled “Cuban-American”. I was born on the Island and got kicked out in 1966. The US took my parents and I in. However, I reject that label in principle. My parents and I went through the naturalization process and today we are United States Citizens.

    I thought that this post was insightful because you shared quite a bit of information that I was not aware about, especially about migrant worker status. And you raise some very valid points.

    But I’m a guy of simple tastes. I like gunpowder, dynamite, and gasoline to wreak havoc the way I do. I don’t need the fancy stuff. So when I look at issues I like to whittle it down to the least common denominator and I don’t ask “What If”. I came to this country to blend in. This means that I contribute what this country wishes to accept from my culture but I begin developing a new culture on my own here. An American culture. My parents and I took the trouble to follow the rules, first through the naturalization process, then the citizenship process. For example, I did register with the Selective Service when required.

    The only reasons I find that immigrants don’t want to take these steps are either because they are too lazy, they want to bypass certain aspects of the system, or they are planning illegal activities. I have very little sympathy for immigrants that don’t want to follow the rules.

    So I say, living in this country comes with certain benefits. To enjoy them, all immigrants must comply with the rules that are on the books. If not, then these benefits should not be extended. Simple….Those people that have migrated here from other countries and have not bothered to even look up their local immigration office, should get no benefits. They should not get rights to vote. They should not get medical assistance or food and shelter assistance. If an American citizen wants to help them, then it’s OK. Let that specific American Citizen shoulder the burden and the cost of doing so.

    I am a simple guy. Some even call me idiotic. If I can go through the process of following the rules made by this country…..anyone can.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you and your family are here, Jokersatx! Thank you so much for following. And, no, you’re not idiotic!

      One thing about U.S. immigration policy, however, is that it could be labeled as having “multiple personality disorder”. It seems that almost every new president has his new take on the next measure that will solve the problem. What happens is the immigration gate sometimes swings wide and lax and no one cares who enters or whether they enter properly or not. Then, suddenly, someone new shows up in the White House and attitudes change. Folks that were previously ignored or warmly welcomed are suddenly treated as if they are the cause of all the problems in American society. It’s absolutely crazy.

      It’s obvious there is a large group of employers who benefit from immigrants and need them and don’t care how they get here. Me, personally, I think the ones that are already here should just be given a legal status because the court system can’t handle the load to process them all. The nation has already absorbed them. Let ’em stay. Let ’em work. Let ’em go to school. Let ’em get busted for crime and go to prison, if they turn out to be ne’er-do-wells.

      Then manage our nation’s entry points at the Mexican and Canadian borders like they are supposed to be. Provide for the southern border the hi-tech gadgets that have been promised for years that are supposed to help secure it. Hire the manpower for Border Patrol that needs to be hired.

      The current immigration laws are sufficient. It’s the waffling in D.C., back and forth from one administration to another, or the fear-mongering and pandering that goes on during campaigns that is really the problem.

      As far as labeling someone as “undocumented”, there are so many different reasons this happens, it is impossible to simply lump them all into the same group as being people who just don’t want to follow the rules. Many arrived legally and have visas that have expired and not because of any fault of their own, but because of the failure of bureaucracy to do its own job properly and in a timely manner. It’s extremely complicated which is why we don’t see mass deportation.

      Once an immigrant arrives here and has an undocumented status for any reason, our Constitution protects them. As for violating any immigration law, they are innocent until proven guilty. They are not summarily put on a bus and driven to the border. They have the privilege of due process. That means going thru the court system. First a hearing, then, if it is determined there is a case, a trial. Each stage of the court system has mandatory waiting periods between appearances to allow a person to prepare their case. This means that one single deportation hearing could take anywhere from six months to six years. That’s how complicated we’re talking about. With an estimated 11 million undocumented people in the United States, you do the math. It costs the court massive amounts of time which, in turn, costs the taxpayer massive amounts of money.


  3. Thanks for the reply to my comment…..So this begs the question. How do we fix the system? See? My concern is not to deport these people, they can stay for all I care. But I do want them recognized. I do want them paying their fair share of taxes and contributing to the system. That! Is what I feel is important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know when your car gets so smashed up the insurance throws up their hands and says “TOTALED” which means it so far gone we might as well just start over with a new one? That’s kinda how I feel about immigration. The country has let it go for so long, it’s best to legalize everyone already here, accept that we, as a nation, allowed this to happen, and just start over. Sounds crazy, I know, but what else is there?


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