Path To Citizenship
6:15 pm
Mon March 18, 2013

What Have We Learned From Past Immigration Reform?

Kindergarten teacher Sandra Aguila works on math skills with a Vietnamese student.
Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones

Seattle schoolteacher Sandra Aguila became a US citizen through the last major immigration reform bill, which President Ronald Reagan signed in 1986. Aguila had arrived in the US one year earlier at age 25. She spoke almost no English. “I could only say ‘good morning,’” she laughs.

Now, nearly three decades later, Aguila teaches English to kindergartners at Beverly Park Elementary south of Seattle. Most of her students are from immigrant families in which English is a second language.

In her classroom, Aguila buzzes from desk to desk as students ask for help or want to show off their work. She beams when a young boy shouts out, “I did it, Ms. Aguila. I didn’t give up.”

“I knew you could do it,” Aguila says. “We never give up.”

Flight To America

Aguila fled to the US from a civil war in El Salvador, along with her husband Sergio and their 3-year-old daughter. They landed in Seattle and found odd jobs – they babysat, cleaned offices and painted houses. In the summer, they would travel to Oregon to work in the cherry orchards.

“The hours were long,” Aguila said. “Sometimes you had to carry big, heavy crates. That was hard for me, especially if you had to climb the ladders. But in general, you know, that was not what I wanted to be doing.”

At the time, Aguila had no idea that backbreaking work would lead to huge reward. In 1986, Reagan signed an unprecedented immigration bill called the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It created a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million immigrants who were in the country illegally. Reagan called it amnesty.

Part of the IRCA bill targeted people who worked on farms in the mid-1980s. Sandra and Sergio lucked out. They met the narrow criteria.

Once they had the legal right to work, Aguila said a new world opened up. She and her husband landed better jobs. Their family got health insurance for the first time. Aguila went back to school and later earned a master’s degree.

“I was lucky,” Aguila said. “I really feel very grateful.”

Results Of 1986 Reform

Federal studies show people who benefited from Reagan’s amnesty were soon earning higher wages. People bought houses and started businesses.

But the IRCA bill is widely viewed as flawed. Unauthorized immigrants continued to flock to jobs in the US and employers continued to hire them. Even immigrant advocates criticize how the program was implemented.

“It was quite a mess,” said Juan Jose Bocanegra, a longtime activist in Seattle. After the amnesty passed, Bocanegra and others scrambled to set up services to help people with the application process.

“We had thousands upon thousands of people,” Bocanegra said. “In Los Angeles they used to rent stadiums to let people know about the process.”

Bocanegra says the federal rules were confusing and inconsistently applied. Applications were denied with no chance of appeal. He says it took several class-action lawsuits to get some policies changed.

Once again, momentum is building in Congress toward an immigration reform bill this year. The centerpiece will likely focus on the estimated 11 million immigrants in the US illegally and whether to give them a path to citizenship.

If a bill passes, Bocanegra hopes the rollout this time around will be much smoother.

He notes today's immigration debate revolves around many of the same issues from the 1980s but he also sees a major shift in social attitudes.

“What stands out, of course, is that we have a broader group of people that are out there defending immigration reform and the immigrant issue," Bocanegra said.

Bocanegra mentions how past adversaries, such as labor unions, are now key supporters.

On the flip side, he also points out groups that want less immigration are better organized now, too.

Lessons From History

Reagan signed the IRCA bill but the groundwork for it started during the previous administration, under President Jimmy Carter. Ray Marshall, labor secretary during the Carter administration, ended up with a key role in immigration policy. He says it came about sort of by chance, as Carter was putting together his program.

Marshall said the president asked his cabinet members, “Anybody see anything I left out?”

“Immigration,” Marshall responded.

Subsequently, Marshall became responsible for economic immigration, as an afterthought.

Marshall tells that story to illustrate what he sees as an ongoing problem with the government’s thinking and approach to immigration. In his view, nobody is in charge of aligning US immigration policies with social and economic policies.

“If somebody is not in charge in our system, it will always be afterthought,” Marshall said. “And if it’s always an afterthought, then it gets neglected. If it gets neglected, then it means you can have happen what we let happen – it can get out of control, almost.”

Marshall sees better results in countries with cabinet-level positions to oversee economic immigration. He points to Canada and Australia as good examples.

As for another amnesty, Marshall considers it necessary. He says as long as there’s a large unauthorized workforce, employers will turn there rather than to any legal programs for foreign workers.

In Sandra Aguila’s classroom, her kindergartners have no clue about immigration reform or how much it might matter to them or their families. Students say they want to grow up to be doctors, firefighters and astronauts. One boy even dreams of a job as Spiderman.

As for Aguila, she always wanted to be a teacher. If she were still undocumented, she doubts this would have happened.

This story is part of our series, "Culture Shift," where we are looking at how the issue of immigration reform connects to culture, business and families in the Northwest.