Immigration Reform and Control Act

In 1986, President Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). This act was meant to both aid undocumented immigrants within the U.S. as well as to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants flooding into the country. The main result of this act was the opportunity to naturalize of all undocumented immigrants who had moved to the U.S. prior to 1982. The act also required employers to make sure their employees were properly documented. While the IRCA was meant to help certain undocumented migrants who were already in the country, it actually only worsened the situation for the majority of Salvadorans. Salvadorans experienced much worse persecution from the INS as well as increased trouble in terms of finding work.

Jose Sandoval, for example, was a Salvadoran immigrant who faced many issues created by IRCA. Sandoval worked two years for a dry wall business as an undocumented employee in D.C. He did so with a low wage and with the promise that his boss would help him to apply for and receive a work permit, thus making him “legal.” Eventually Sandoval left this job as his boss continually sent his employees to a certain lawyer to apply for papers, which they never received.[1] This story is one of many where corrupt employers were able to take advantage of Salvadorans wishing to become legally documented in our nation’s capital. By putting the burden of proof on the employers, IRCA allowed for these situations to occur without intervention from the law. Again, we see how U.S. law was pushing Salvadorans into an underground society where they obtained papers by any means necessary, which exposed to them to various criminal elements.

Marina Blanco exemplifies how when these Salvadorans kept working despite their “illegal” status and were taken advantage off. Blanco entered the country in 1986 prior to the IRCA and did not have much difficulty finding work. In contrast members of her family who followed her to Alexandria had considerable difficulty finding a good job because of their illegal status. They were able to work as painters assistants but were paid only $10 a day. Blanco claimed that with undocumented workers “employers just pay what they want.”[2]

Another factor to realize is that the bulk of Salvadoran immigrants arrived in the U.S. from 1982-1987, meaning most were not eligible for the amnesty program offered by IRCA.[3] Also on top of this, many Salvadorans did not apply for amnesty out of a basic distrust for the INS, fearing possible deportation. These facts lead IRCA to have hardly the intended impact in terms of successfully legalizing these undocumented migrants.
The burden of proof being put on employers created a variety of problems. The story of Richard Trujillo accurately portrays but one of these problems. Trujillo was a native of Kansas and a U.S. citizen. A 1989 article in the Washington Post describes how when he put his status as “citizen” for a job application and provided social security card as well as his driver’s license, he was still denied the job because–when asked to provide an “INS number”–he did have one.[3] Here, we see how even U.S. born citizens were discriminated against because of the assumption of people of Hispanic descent as foreigners.

These stories represent only a few of the many that could be told by Salvadorans living in our nation’s capital region and throughout the country. IRCA passed in 1986 and was meant to legalize most all of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. as well as prevent the ability of people without proper documentation to work in the states. IRCA failed both these goals, simply making Salvadorans “illegal” status more concrete as well as increasing their difficulty in working at a reasonable wage.

Below is a timeline that gives a review of the events that greatly affected Salvadorans immigrating to and already living within the U.S.

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[1]- Terry Repak, Waiting on Washington (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 131.

[2]- Karlyn Barker, “New Wave of Salvadoran Immigrants Revives Call for Refugee Status,” Washington Post, February 18, 1989.

[3]- Carlos Cordova, The Salvadoran Americans (London: Greenwood Press, 2005), 45.

[4]- Jay Matthews, “Job Bias Cases Tied to Immigration Act,” Washington Post, November 6, 1989.