U.S. immigration policy has changed drastically in the past thirty years. Reforms in the 80s and 90s have systemized refugee admissions, increased the annual immigration ceiling, and implemented a legalization program. However they have also restricted non-citizen access to benefits, expedited deportation proceedings and militarized enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border. What explains the seemingly contradictory directions of these policy reforms?
This paper will argue that current policy primarily reflects the interests of free-market expansionists who see immigration as a means to fulfill labor demands and promote national prosperity (Tichenor, 2002, p. 37). Free-market expansionists therefore support policies that seek to maximize the potential benefit from immigration, legal and illegal, while minimizing the potential expenditure on the immigrant population in the form of benefits and entitlements. However no single interest group has complete dominance in the electoral and legislative policy realm and the free-market expansionists were forced to compromise and build coalition regimes in order to see forward their own interests.
The prevailing policy regime aligned during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, inspired by the unusual “ideological convergence of free-market conservatives…and cosmopolitan liberals (who hoped to reaffirm family reunification preferences and record levels of nonwhite, Third World immigration)” (Tichenor, 2002, p.41). These interests, and the compromises necessary to make this coalition politically viable are evident in their first piece of immigration legislation: The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986.
Comprehensive immigration reform had been attempted by co-sponsors Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) and Representative Rodano Mazzoli (D-KY) since the early 1980s and had been subjected to intense scrutiny and debate. (Newton, 2008, p.48- )