Legalization or Amnesty for Unlawful Immigrants – An American Tradition

Legalization of unlawful immigrants, commonly referred to as amnesty, has been hyperbolically described as an affront to U.S. national sovereignty, the rule of law, and even our Constitutional Republic.  However, the U.S. government has a long history of successfully legalizing violators of immigration laws.

In 1929, the year the Immigration Act of 1924 went in effect, Congress passed an amnesty to allow for the voluntary registration of all unlawful immigrants who wished to legalize their unrecorded entry.  Beginning a familiar pattern, Congress combined this 1929 amnesty with severe legal penalties on unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States without inspection after the amnesty was complete.[i]

As part of the reforms of the Bracero Program’s guest worker visa in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many unauthorized Mexican migrants were legalized and granted a visa on the spot.  According to Professor Kitty Calavita, 55,000 unlawful Mexican immigrants were legalized as Bracero workers in 1947 through a process derogatively referred to as “drying out” unlawful migrant workers.[ii] Under the auspices of an increase in immigration enforcement and the expansion of the Bracero guest worker visa, other unlawful Mexican migrants were driven down to the Mexican border and made to take one step across the border and immediately reenter as a legal Bracero worker, a process referred to as “a walk around statute.”[iii]

In 1958, the cutoff date for the 1929 amnesty was advanced to June 28, 1940 – meaning that unlawful immigrants who entered before that later date could legalize.  The Immigration Act of 1965 again advanced the cut off date for the 1929 amnesty to June 30, 1948.[iv]

Year

 Legalizations of Unauthorized Immigrants

1959

4,321

1960

4,773

1961

5,037

1962

3,399

1963

2,680

1964

2,585

1965

2,064

1966

2,595

1967

3,195

1968

2,148

1969

1,565

1970

1,520

1971

1,190

1972

1,653

1973

1,254

1974

875

1975

556

1976

796

1977

546

1978

423

1979

262

1980

428

1981

241

Total

44,106

Source: Vernon M. Briggs Jr., Immigration Policy and the American Labor Force, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984, p. 66.

The Immigration Reform and Control (IRCA) Act in 1986 – the so-called Reagan Amnesty – legalized 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants who had been residing in the United States since 1982.  After IRCA, the Section 245(i) legalization passed in 1994 and was then extended again in 1997.  The 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief (NACARA) Act also legalized close to one million unlawful immigrants from Central America.  The Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness (HRIFA) Act legalized around 125,000 unauthorized immigrants from Haiti in 1998.  The Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act of 2000 reinstated the rolling 245(i) legalization provision. 

So long as there are immigration restrictions on the movement of peaceful and healthy people, and Americans want to continue to hire and sell products to immigrants, some will always come whether the immigration laws allow it or not.  To address the unlawful immigrant population, Congress periodically passes a legalization or amnesty bill, but the number of unlawful immigrants rises again because lawful immigration has not been sufficiently liberalized – despite vast increases in enforcement.

Past amnesties and legalizations of unauthorized immigrants didn’t destroy U.S. national sovereignty (the United States is still a sovereign country), the rule of law (in tatters for many reasons, including efforts to enforce our arbitrary and capricious immigration laws), or our Constitutional Republic.  It’s hard to see why another one passed by Congress and signed by the President would produce those grave harms.


[i] Vernon M. Briggs Jr., Immigration Policy and the American Labor Force, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984, p. 47.

[ii] Deborah Cohen, Braceros: Migrant Citizens and Transnational Subject in the Postwar United States and Mexico, University of North Carolina Press, 2011, p. 209, Kitty Calavita, Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the INS, Quid Pro Books, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2010, pp. 25-26, 34.

[iii] Kitty Calavita, Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the INS, Quid Pro Books, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2010, p. 43.

[iv] Vernon M. Briggs Jr., Immigration Policy and the American Labor Force, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1984, p. 66.