New INS Report

1986 Amnesty Increased Illegal Immigration

By Steven A. Camarota October 2000

1986 Amnesty Increased Illegal Immigration

WASHINGTON (Oct. 12, 2000) - The report on America's illegal immigration crisis by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), released today on Capitol Hill, highlights the profound unintended consequences of illegal-alien amnesties, just as Congress is considering another such amnesty. The report also makes clear, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that legal and illegal immigration are so intimately connected as to be two sides of the same coin. (Download the report at http://wwwa.house.gov/lamarsmith/INSreport.pdf.)

The report represents a genuine effort by the INS to examine this complex problem. The new estimates are the best to date and provide valuable new information for policymakers and the public. Among the findings, and their implications:


  • Amnesties clearly do not solve the problem of illegal immigration. About 2.7 million people received lawful permanent residence ("green cards") in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of the amnesties contained in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. But these new INS figures show that by the beginning of 1997 those former illegal aliens had been entirely replaced by new illegal aliens, and that the unauthorized population again stood at more than 5 million, just as before the amnesty.

  • In fact, the new INS estimates show that the 1986 amnesty almost certainly increased illegal immigration, as the relatives of newly legalized illegals came to the United States to join their family members. The flow of illegals grew dramatically during the years of the amnesty to more than 800,000 a year, before dropping back down to around 500,000 a year.

  • While it might be supposed that the increase in illegal immigration was caused only by the Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) provisions of the 1986 amnesty, the INS report indicates that this was not the case. Figures in the report itself show that illegal immigration surged more dramatically from countries other than Mexico. Since the vast majority of those amnestied under SAW were from Mexico, the increase should have been mostly Mexican if the SAW provision had been responsible for the surge.

  • Overall, the estimates show that nearly 500,000 illegal aliens settled here each year in the mid-1990s. This total number of new illegal settlers is offset by about 145,000 illegals who returned home on their own each year, 40,000 deportations, 20,000 deaths, and around 150,000 illegals receiving green cards as part of the normal "legal" immigration process.

  • The report clearly demonstrates that legal and illegal immigration are intimately linked, and not separate phenomena, as is commonly supposed. Between 1987 and 1996, the report states that 1.3 million green cards were given out to illegal aliens as part of the normal "legal" immigration process (189,000 in 1996 alone) - separate from the 2.7 million illegals who received legal status under the 1986 IRCA amnesty.

  • The 1.3 million green cards given out to illegals between 1987 and 1996 dwarf immigration enforcement efforts. According to the new estimates, only 335,000 illegals were deported or required to leave the country by the INS during the same period.

"The fact that these new INS figures show that the last amnesty actually attracted more illegal immigration should give serious pause to those now advocating another amnesty," said Steven A. Camarota, Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies. "With the government estimating that nearly half a million illegal aliens settle permanently in the United States each year, the new estimates indicate that we have not yet regained control over our nation's borders."

These numbers suggest that Congress's focus on border enforcement as almost the sole means of controlling illegal immigration is inadequate. Illegal immigration can be controlled only with a strategy that combines border enforcement with efforts to turn off the magnets that attract illegal aliens in the first place - jobs and green cards. Thus, the missing elements of our illegal immigration policy are muscular enforcement of the prohibition on hiring illegal workers and deep, permanent cuts in legal immigration.

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The Center for Immigration Studies is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank which examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States.