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Nowrasteh on the 1986 Immigration Act

The Psychology of Trolling... 3 Questions for Alex Nowrasteh...
Cato's Alex Nowrasteh emailed me an interesting reaction to my post on Reagan's 1986 immigration law.  Reprinted with this permission:


I enjoyed your blog post.  A few thoughts:

The bigger cost of IRCA was its boost of border security, ending the 'salutary neglect' of immigration laws on the SW border from the end of the Bracero Program in 1964 until 1986.  When that happened, temporary Mexican migrants were locked in by immigration enforcement that made it more expensive to cross the border. 

Massey's figure 7 shows a decline in the probability of returning that coincides with IRCA:   

The cross-border flow during that period of salutary neglect was huge, but the net increase in US population was relatively small.  An estimated 26.7 million entries of unauthorized Mexican migrants into the United States from 1965 to 1985 and 21.8 million departures to Mexico, yielding a net increase of just 4.9 million over 20 years. For lawful migrants, the return rate was lower but fluctuated between 20 percent and 30 percent in the 1970s and 1980s.  I quote from Massey's book here:

IRCA mandated a 50% increase in border patrol staffing.  CBP staffing by border sector increased from early 1990s:

Here's a graph of border patrol staffing by sector from 1980:

There are many other ways to measure the intensity of border enforcement, such as line-watch hours.  Also, about 42% of unauthorized immigrants entered legally and overstayed their visas. 

If IRCA was combined with a workable guest worker visa program for low-skilled workers then I think it would have substantially reduced the flow of unauthorized immigrants after 1986, but the small reforms to the H2 visa didn't nearly go far enough.  If a sufficiently large Bracero 2.0 was created with IRCA, it could've been worth it.

When the workers can't go back and forth, their families will come north.  The biggest impact of IRCA was that it locked in many unauthorized immigrants who otherwise would have left.  The PATRIOT Act and post-9/11 border security bonanza sealed that effect.


P.S. Alex's father is director Cyrus Nowrasteh. Don't miss his The Stoning of Soraya M.

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